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Harris Theater’s 2016 Opener: Itzhak Perlman Conducting Juilliard Orchestra

Friday, January 08, 2016 tgoandco

One of the best ways to begin the new year: Harris Theater’s 2016 opener with Itzhak Perlman conducting the Juilliard Orchestra. Literally one of the most coveted tickets of this month, the Harris was packed to the rafters and lined up to Michigan Avenue. Perlman is a Chicago favorite when he is performs. He fills the lawn at Ravinia and is a quick sellout wherever he goes. Julliard is the nation’s most highly regarded institution for performance, music and dance education. Students from over 40 countries compete to gain entrance. For many, it is the launch pad for their musical career and a lifetime of Grammy wins. Tonight’s performance is comprised of roughly 90 of the school’s 350 students in the school’s orchestra program. The night’s combination of Perlman and Julliard is one of many high points of Harris Theater’s 2015/2016 Season. It was a New Year Opener not to be missed.

The work of Tchaikovsky provided the focus for tonight’s performance. He is appreciated by many listeners for his works The 1812 Overture, the ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker and opera scores Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin. Tchaikovsky’s work was ground breaking in that he was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally but also he one of the first Russian composers to actually make a living as a composer when he was honored with a lifetime pension from Emperor Alexander III. His mixing of traditional Russian folk themes into Western music compositional practices was less to market his work but more/less a way to provide a ground and listen space for Russian music in society as a whole. He strove to put Russian music in a perspective so that it was something that could be shared with the world as a whole. In doing so, he formed is own original style and provided a bridge linking Russian music prior to his life with Russian music of the 20st Century with the likes of Igor Stravinski’s Rite of Spring. Tchaikovsky’s music is deeply personal and emotional.  American cultural historian, Joseph Horovitz wrote
"His work never went out of style, and his most popular works have yielded iconic sound-bytes [sic], such as the love theme from Romeo and Juliet." The music is accessible for many for it’s emotional frankness and overt expression. He is know as a composer of music with much depth, innovation and provided work that influenced many. It is known for not following sonata form strictly but instead relied upon juxtaposing blocks of tonalities and thematic groups. His work can range from quiet and intimate to swashbuckling and grand.

Great Performances

The three works comprising the performance began with Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasie. This is an interesting work that evolved over a great period of time. Tchaikovsky was barely 29 of age when he composed it. It was appropriate for the Julliard performance as many of the musicians on the stage are around or just slightly younger than Tchaikovsky. Many of those performing in tonight’s show are sophomores and juniors in their college career… making them about 19 or 20. I think because of that, there seemed to be an enthusiasm and excitement in performing tonight’s show. The enthusiasm could also be their conductor Itzhak Perlman.

“Very much an artist” as one student said. Perlman is a brilliant performer. The 16-time Grammy winner is tied with Sting for his number of Grammy wins and is recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Perlman has been honored by four sitting American Presidents (Presidential Medal of Liberty – Reagan, Kennedy Center Honors Award – G.W. Bush, National Medal of Art – Clinton and most recently with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama). As a conductor/programmer, Perlman pulls together a program that provides an entertaining and emotionally expansive event.  As a teacher, he is known for being incredibly generous with his time and for mentoring and bringing out the best in students. At Julliard, he teaches classes for college and pre-college students and is the chair of violin studies program since 1999. He and his wife Toby have the Perlman Music Program that welcomes young musicians of rare and exceptional talent. Perlman Music Program seeks to ensure that the very best musicians can take advantage of unparalleled musical training, nurturing and support regardless of their economic background or financial means. He is loved by students and the interaction between students and himself is very much apparent on stage.  There are lots of smiles and everyone is given credit for their contributions in the night’s performance. At his current age of 70, he is like a grandfather or a Yoda for teaching the young musical Jedi. They adore him.

One of the second musical highlights came from Cellist Edvard Pogossian. Armenian American, Pogossian is currently a sophomore at Juilliard and performed the evening’s second program offering: Variations on a Rococo Theme. While very young, Pogossian is very quickly making a name for himself and a huge number of awards. He has won the Los Angeles Violoncello Society Award as well as the Los Angeles Philharmonic Young Artist Competition. At Julliard, he is in the Honors Chamber Music Program as well as the recipient of the Kovner Fellowship. He has performed with the Moscow Ballet, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Besides having a wonderful command of the cello and being amazingly talented, he is great eye candy on stage. He is hard to overlook when he comes on stage. He has kind of a boyish charm and innocence and appears almost shy when being introduced or taking a bow. That quickly melts away when he starts to play. At that point, he takes command of the room and provides a breath-taking performance.

Variation on a Rococo Theme has an interesting history as it was developed for cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen — a 28 year old German Musician who served as the principle cellist for the Moscow Music Society in 1877. Fitzenhagen had a knack for putting his personal touches on music — including rewriting a composer’s score to suit himself. The final published score of Variations is one that is combination of Fitzenhagen and Tchaikovsky. It offers much to highlight a cellist ‘ capabilities. It is less of an authentic Rococo period piece of music than it is a musical fantasy of that gracefully contours around musical themes that inspired Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky was an admirer of Mozart and the classical style. This is a lovely work but is physically demanding for the performer — it takes the soloist about 20 minutes to play without a break and often times requires having to play in a very high register and/or incredibly fast. Pogossian executed the performance incredibly well and with much passion.

The evening’s final piece was perhaps the most heart felt. It was the Symphony No. 6 in B-Minor, Op. 74 — Pathétique. (“infused with pathos). This is a work that Tchaikovsky was immensely proud of. “I give you my word of honor that never in my life have I been so contented, so proud, so happy in the knowledge that I have written a good piece.” For the time, it was extremely unorthodox, mysterious and hard to understand for many. It has fallen into modern consciousness in many forms, parts and pieces. It is the basis for Glenn Miller’s music “(This is) The Story of a Starry Night” and is featured in cartoons like Ren & Stimpy. It has been played at the Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony and mentioned in literature or referenced in film scores. While not a requiem, it was suggested that it may have been framed around in his mind after the death of a close friend Aleksey Apukhtin who had recently passed.

The musical themes of the symphony deal with fate, life, love, disappointment and death.  It was final work of Tchaikovsky as he died less than 9 days after it’s premiere. This rendition and performance was lush and perfectly suited for the size and scale of the Julliard Orchestra. It was a perfect ending to a lovely concert that dedicated and performed in memory of Pierre Boulez who had died that morning. Boulez was well known and very much loved by Julliard. He was a supporter and collaborator with Julliard.  He worked to teach young people how to perform well and to also view and understand complicated musical scores. His mission with the school was to inspire and teach young musicians to approach new work with enthusiasm and strip away the problems often associated with new and contemporary music. That this piece was played with the memory of Mr. Boulez seems appropriate as he did so much to raise the consciousness of contemporary music.

You will not want to miss out on some of the glorious events planned for this upcoming spring at the Harris Theater. To find out the upcoming events and happenings (and I suggest you do as there are some fabulous things to pick from), go to the

Druckenbrod, Andrew (2011-01-30). "Festival to explore Tchaikovsky's changing reputation". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2013-08-18.

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