New Classical Tracks: Tchaikovsky's Shakespeare

by Julie Amacher
March 8, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks - March 9, 2011
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Gustavo Dudamel/Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela - Tchaikovsky & Shakespeare (DG 15296) (Courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon)

Once instruments are put into the hands of the children in El Sistema, Venezuela's music educational program, the young musicians are quickly introduced to works by Tchaikovsky. According to conductor Gustavo Dudamel, works like Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave, the "1812 Overture," and the finale to the Fourth Symphony, are just part of the Venezuelan culture. "It has something to do with the fact that when you play Tchaikovsky you can fall in love with it immediately," he explains.

Dudamel grew up in that educational system and in addition to his duties as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Sweden's Gothenburg Orchestra, "The Dude," as he's affectionately called, continues to lead their top ensemble, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra . On their new recording,"Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare, " he and the orchestra continue their love affair with Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky had plenty of opportunity to see Shakespearean plays on the Russian stage in the mid 19th century. His reading material as he traveled to Europe or America was always a set of plays by Shakespeare. In 1869 Tchaikovsky was just 28 years old and already an up-and-coming composer and a professor of music at the Moscow Conservatory. His first great success was based on an idea suggested by Mily Balakirev, a Russian composer whom Tchaikovsky highly admired. It was Balakirev who suggested Tchaikovsky compose an orchestral fantasy based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Tchaikovsky was mending his own broken heart after being jilted by a Belgian soprano, and dealing with his deeper struggle of accepting his homosexuality. Fueled by his own emotional turmoil, Tchaikovsky brought this tragic love story new life. Balakirev held Tchaikovsky's hand every step of the way, offering detailed suggestions right down to specific themes he should incorporate. The most memorable melody is the beautiful love theme. Even Balakirev praised Tchaikovsky for this gorgeous song, saying, "I play it often, and I want very much to kiss you for it!" This striking performance with Gustavo Dudamel and the young musicians in the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra is incredibly passionate, especially when the love theme returns and is overwhelmed by the music of the feuding Capulets and Montagues.

Four years later, Tchaikovsky composed "The Tempest," inspired by Shakespeare's play. This is the first Tchaikovsky composition that Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's future patron ever heard. Later, she told the composer, "For several days I was delirious and could not get over it." This piece is less complex than "Romeo and Juliet." It follows a specific program yet with a simpler structure. The fantasy begins as Ferdinand's ship sails confidently on the quiet sea. The waves begin to roil and the sea churns when the magician Prospero orders the sprite Ariel to summon the tempest. Tchaikovsky's music rages with brilliant orchestration as the ship wrecks. As Prospero casts a magical spell over his only daughter Miranda, and Ferdinand the heir to the King of Naples, the love theme rises from the orchestra. This love theme isn't as memorable as "Romeo and Juliet," but it's just as lush and romantic.

In his final Shakespearean fantasy Tchaikovsky depicts the character of Hamlet through a powerful atmosphere of tension and dread. There are some beautiful themes in this colorful tone poem, including one featuring a solitary oboe.

Gustavo Dudamel says it's easy to fall in love with the music of Tchaikovsky. "Of course the melodies are so grateful, and he plays with the harmonies so perfectly," Dudamel explains, "The phrases are often regular and easy to understand, and it's important for our orchestra to be able to grasp the structure of a symphony immediately." On their new recording, "Tchaikovsky & Shakespeare," Gustavo Dudamel and the members of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra share their passion for Tchaikovsky with the rest of us.