The Oregon Symphony in Salem
Bill Long 12/7/11
With a Confusing Program Note...
In one of the more memorable performances of the Oregon Symphony in Salem, Pinchas Zukerman, the renowed violinist, both conducted the orchestra last evening and played lead role in the third offering of the night--Haydn's Violin Concerto in C Major. His wide-ranging artistry, varied style for each of the movements of the Concerto and superb technique and passion, electrified me as well as most of the audience. I couldn't wait to play and replay that piece, and I have been in "Haydn Heaven" for the past 24 hours..
The Symphony in Salem board is to be commended for their diligent efforts in bringing this quality of music to Salem. And, it appears to me, the quality of the Symphony is so much stronger than when I first began attending it nearly 30 years ago. To cite only one example, principal horn player John Cox, who has been with the orchestra for nearly that entire time, has matured into, in my judgment, one of the finest horn players in the West. Thus, we had a feel of "world class" last night in a city which normally struggles to be second class.
My Rant on a Program Note
So, while I was reflecting on that perfect evening last night, an evening which also included Rossini's Overture to Il signor Bruschino and Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Opus 61, I read the program notes for the last piece, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, and I said to myself, "Hey, these notes make no sense." So, my purpose in the rest of this essay is to show how Elizabeth Schwartz's program note on this piece needs lots of work to bring it to clarity.
In a nutshell, in explaining the genesis of the piece, she begins by mentioning Tchaikovsky's four year romantic affair with the underage Eduard Zak. That affair began in 1869, whe Zak was a mere 15 years-old, and ended with his suicide at age 19 in 1873.
I said to myself, "She has to be mentioning this love affair because it must have been the inspiration for the fantasy overture." Sure enough, after mentioning the two dates of 1869 and 1873 in the first paragraph, she begins the second paragraph: "A year earlier, T had made the acquaintance of Mily Balakirev..."
As a former teacher and reader of many student (and teacher) essays, I said to myself, "Oh, oh, this sentence is trouble." The reason it is trouble, and the rest of her words bore out the trouble, is that she lets slip the possibility of ambiguity into understanding here. Is the "year earlier" 1868 or 1872? By rights of proximity it should be the latter, but a careful reading of what follows suggests she means 1868.
Ok, so far so good (or not really so good, but I could live with this if this were the only problem). But, recall, when an author makes a gaffe like this, you can only expect trouble in the rest of the piece. She doesn't disappoint, but goes on to say that Balakirev inspired T to write an overture to Romeo and Juliet, giving him lots of additional helps. Ok, it would have been helpful for us to know when this conversation took place, or when this inspiration congealed. We know that the first version of the piece came out in 1869, the second in 1870 and the third in 1880, so the conversation must have taken place in 1868 or 1869.
Ok, but we are losing our precision here. So, on we go. She then writes, "Tchaikovsky was drawn to the story of Romeo and Juliet, which reminded him in some ways of his affir with Zak, particularly the tragic ending.."
Hm. So, in 1868 or 1869 Tchaikovsky was "reminded" of a love affair, with its tragic ending, a love affair which didn't begin until 1869 and didn't end until four years later. I well respect Tchaikovsky's genius, but to anticipate one's emotional undoing four years before it happens and perhaps even before the relationship began that led to the undoing, is a mark that exceeds any category of genius I have encountered.
This is either an extraordinary act of genius, knowing not only of a love affair but also its breakup four years before it happened, or we are sinking into muddle-headed writing. I think the latter is more probable.
So, she has unhelpfully linked two events which may not be related at all--the beginnings of Tchaikovsky's pedophilic relationship with Zak and the encouragement of Bialesky to do something on the theme of Romeo and Juliet, and has talked about a breakup in 1873 being possibly an inspiration for a piece written in 1869.
There would have been ways to save her program note, but I am not being paid to save her writing. Suffice it to say that it might have helped to differentiate between the original version and two revisions. What did the latter bring to the piece that the former didn't have? Do we "hear" signs of a "breakup" in the 1880 version? Without giving me precision, I am awash in a sea of confusion. Thus, Elizabeth, keep at it, and try to be more precise. Someone is usually watching..