February 27 is a very special day for the Jacksonville Symphony. We will celebrate our orchestra with a gala concert featuring the international virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell performing Tchaikovsky’s radiant violin concerto.
Joshua Bell was born in Indiana and began playing the violin at the age of four. His talent was so remarkable that he made his debut performing with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra only ten years later. He has performed with the world’s greatest orchestras ever since, and has recently become the music director of London’s famous chamber orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Now it’s our pleasure to welcome him to Jacksonville.
I’ve known Mr. Bell for a few years; he’s a frequent performer with the New York Philharmonic, and even sits on the orchestra Board. I’ve admired his playing for much longer, particularly his sound, which is golden and direct. He plays the ‘Huberman’ Stradivarius, built in 1713. Hearing a Stradivarius performed by a great soloist in person is always thrilling. I remember the first time I accompanied a violinist playing one: the sound was so enormous I left the stage with my ears ringing.
The Tchaikovsky violin concerto is at the centre of every violinist’s repertoire. Full of unforgettable melodies and opportunities to demonstrate virtuosity, it’s a work that has been beloved by every generation since its premiere, with the notable exception of that of the Viennese Establishment in the 1870s. Indeed, the infamously conservative Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick had this to say of it: ‘For a while, it moves along well enough, musical and not lacking in spirit, but soon roughness gets the upper hand and remains in charge until the end of the first movement. It is no longer a question of whether the violin is being played, but of being yanked about and torn to tatters.’ Over 130 years later, the conservatism of these comments seems almost quaint, but Hanslick gives us a very interesting insight into how contemporary Europeans viewed Tchaikovsky. A little more spleen: ‘The adagio, with its gentle Slav melancholy, is well on the way to reconciling us and winning us over. But it ends abruptly, making way for a finale that transports us into the brutish, grim jollity of a Russian church festival. In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths, and smell cheap liquor.’
Far from being the household name to whom orchestras turn to guarantee an enthusiastic public, the Tchaikovsky of 1870s’ Vienna was exotic and unorthodox. As far as the cultural world of the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Empire was concerned, he was an outsider, and as such it was permissible to speak dismissively of his music. Realizing this, I couldn’t help programming the violin concerto alongside a piece written in reaction against Russia as the imperial power. Jean Sibelius’s Karelia Suite was written as incidental music to a play staged in Helsinki in 1893. The Karelia region of what is now eastern Finland had been subjected to a process of ‘Russification’ whereby Imperial Russia sought to stamp out the rising tide of Finnish nationalism by imposing Russian culture. The people of Karelia resisted and were seen as national heros. Sibelius’s music would become incredibly important during Finland’s struggle for independence.
Our gala concert begins with music by another Finn, this time one still very much alive. Esa-Pekka Salonen is equally celebrated as a composer and conductor. You might know him from a recent spate of Apple commercials in which we see him composing on his iPad in a taxi. Salonen’s electrifying overture Helix begins quietly but gets louder and faster for its entire nine minutes. It moves from an idyllic mood towards a feeling of utter mania. What better way to set the stage for a thrilling evening.
Whether one sees Imperial Russia as an exotic outsider or a despotic tyrant, she is undeniably alluring, especially as the theme for our gala. After the concert we invite you to join us for a dinner of blinis, borscht and vodka in a luxurious crystal palace. Costumes are encouraged.
The Jacksonville Symphony is lucky to perform with many of the world’s great artists, but it’s only occasionally that we present the debut of an international superstar. I hope you’ll join me on February 27 for the 2016 Jacksonville Symphony Gala Russkaya Noch. It will be a winter night to remember!