Symphony opens season with Tchaikovsky

Weekend concerts will also feature work by Jean Sibelius

Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2004

The winter of 1877-78 was a miserable time for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the legendary Russian composer of "The Nutcracker," "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty."

Latently gay, he had nevertheless agreed to marry Antonina Milyukova, a former music student of his who had become obsessed with him. Tchaikovsky was a nervous man already, and her boundless nymphomania drove him further mad. The marriage collapsed after three months, and he was so self-conscious he attempted to kill himself. He failed.

Tchaikovsky fled to the town of Clarens in the Swiss Alps, where he spent much of his time with a young violinist named Joseph Kotek. The rest of his days were spent drinking and composing a grand 35-minute concerto, dominated, of course, by solo violin.

"Violin concerto, opus 35 in D major," was completed in the spring and premiered Dec. 4, 1881, in Vienna. It was a document of his torment, and it's known as one of his most famous works.

"The violin spoke of his condition, and he decided to use it to express his feelings," Juneau concert violinist Paul Rosenthal said. "The violin is a very songful sort of instrument. It's very brilliant, and he thought in brilliant terms. He knew how to play the force of an orchestra against the force of a violin."

Rosenthal will join the Juneau Symphony for its season opener this weekend, lending his solo violin talent to Tchaikovsky's work. The orchestra will also tackle "Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 39" by Jean Sibelius, perhaps the best known Finnish composer of all time.

Concert times are 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. A concert conversation starts an hour before each show.

Advance tickets are $18 for general admission, $14 for youth, students and seniors and available at Hearthside Books or www.juneau.com/symphony. At the door, tickets are $20 for general admission, $16 for youth, students and seniors.

At Sunday's matinee, children under 10 get in for $12. For more information, visit the Web site or call 586-HORN (4676). KTOO-FM will broadcast Sunday afternoon's performance on the radio and on its Web site, www.ktoo.org.

Rosenthal has been playing the violin since he was 3. He's lived in Alaska since 1969. He founded the Sitka Summer Music Festival in 1972 and also directs the festival's Autumn Classics and Winter Classics series in Anchorage.

Rosenthal has recorded for the RCA, Vox, Fidelio, Arabesque, Vanguard and Biddulph labels. During the past season, he has performed in Italy, New York, Dallas, Vancouver (British Columbia) and Amsterdam, and has played solo recitals in Paris, an Indian reservation in Bapchule, Ariz., the Yukon, Oklahoma, and the salon in Felix Mendelssohn's home in Leipzig, Germany.

Rosenthal plays a violin made by Joseph Guarnerius in 1706 in Cremona, Italy.

He has played Tchaikovsky's concerto many times.

"He was a difficult person and he had a difficult life," Rosenthal said. "He was a special kind of Russian genius. Classical music belonged to Europe at that point (the 1870s). The great European tradition had been going on. And finally in Russia, God said, 'Let there be light,' and there appeared Tchaikovsky.

"Russian music, with its soulfulness and colors and traditions that made it spring to life, sprang to life in Tchaikovsky," he said. "He was one of the greatest of the Russian genius composers. So whatever was going on his life at any point, he was always expressive."

Sibelius was a much happier, healthier man than Tchaikovsky. Finland, however, was suffering under increasingly oppressive Russian occupation. The country was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1809 but still fairly autonomous for most of the 19th century. In 1899, Czar Nicholas II tightened the hold - taking away constitutional guarantees, requiring Finnish men to serve in the Russian military, requiring approval for public meetings and granting more power to the secret police. As a result, young Finns became more nationalistic. Sibelius' symphony, full of his country's lore, premiered in Helsinki on April 26, 1899.

Finland finally became a republic in 1919.

"It also speaks to the soul, and it's hugely skillful," Rosenthal said. "Sibelius is the musical voice of Finland. He was a national hero."



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