The Night the Lights Went Out On Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovksy's_signatureThe principal horn player had finished his solo with aplomb and the orchestra effortlessly elided into the new theme. All were inspired by the direction in which the second movement was headed. This followed an electrifying first movement, then a pregnant pause between movements that held the audience expectantly poised for more. Then, 31 bars into the glorious second movement, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony came to a grinding halt.

The concert was going better than expected, the orchestra was tight, the emotional swells more effective than they ever had been in rehearsal and the adrenaline was pumping. Then the lights went out. Literally. The concert had experienced a force majeur. The technology we rely upon had failed.

Special kudos go to the double bass section who completed their phrase in the dark. After the few seconds (that felt much longer) the emergency lights went up, and following an appropriate pause to see if it was all going to self-correct, I decided I must leave the stage to find out what was happening. The audience remained silent, not wanting to leave the emotional tracks we had so thoroughly established. Though now they were also expectantly poised in another way.

It became apparent the problem was campus-wide and not likely to be soon fixed, so we cancelled the remainder of the performance, promising a return evening. The audience sighed. The air had been let out of the balloon.

We had been doing an excellent job of bringing out Tchaikovsky’s expectations and surprises in the score. I espouse much of Leonard B. Meyer’s theories in preparing a score. His Emotion and Meaning in Music is required reading for my conducting students. One of the basic tenets of his theory is that our emotional response to music is based on the careful manipulation of consistency (expected style) with careful balance of delay or surprise in those expectations. Basically stated, our emotional response to music is based on the unexpected.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is an extremely well-composed piece, with a loose program revolving around a fate-motive that appears in different guises, some obvious, some hidden—all surprises in terms of expectations. Even his chord choices in the symphony’s introduction are a study in the effectiveness of changing expectations. The problem was a power outage was not part of the performance. Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are not performance art, nor even like those of his countryman Alexander Scriabin where visual colors are integrated to certain compositions. The power outage was unexpected on all levels of our expected experience.

Musicians deal with technology failures on a fairly regular basis. Reeds that split, valves that stick, strings that break are all part of the orchestral experience. But a power outage goes beyond the ability of the musicians to address or fix. The musical surprise and resolution that awaited both the musicians on the stage and the audience was taken away, ironically by the chance of fate. To say it was a let down is an understatement.

This unexpected surprise did not have a deep emotional effect until much later in the evening. Once the adrenaline of the evening and lighting failure wore off, the emotional ride bottomed out. To be sure, musicians experience this as a normal part of performing. But the interruption of the music created an unusual lack of resolution and deep emotional morass that many have reported feeling, both musicians and audience alike.

For most events, audience would leave saying, “Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.” But this does not happen with great music. Immediately, and for the past several days, there have been inquiries from all corners about when will the concert be rescheduled. When will we finish Tchaikovsky’s symphony?

That Tchaikovsky wrote a piece that demands completion is explicit of his genius as a composer and a validation of the greatness of this particular piece of music. Like a well-crafted story we simply must follow it to the conclusion, through the many transitions and cadences, to the final exclamation point. Amazingly, this is the case even if you do not know the programmatic element of the music and significance of the fate theme. It works with or without the program because it provides a narrative that can be followed on a deeper level. Descriptive words can help explain, but they are not necessary for understanding and meaning.

“In ‘pure’ instrumental music, the strategies chosen by composers to create unity were responsive to the tenets of Romanticism…Even in the absence of an explicit program, motivic continuity created a kind of narrative coherence. Like the chief character in a novel, the ‘fortunes’ of the main motive–its development, variation, and encounters with other ‘protagonists’–served as a source of constancy throughout the unfolding of the musical process.” Meyer: Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology (1989)

The good news is that we will indeed finish the story. And I am pleased to report that the concert will be rescheduled. The Utah Phil’s Tchaikovsky 5 Reboot will be Thursday, November 5th at 7:30 p.m. at Libby Gardner Concert Hall. Since every concert is different, the thrill ride we were on will undoubtedly be slightly different, too. But the spirit will remain. And we will finish Tchaikovsky’s Unfinished Symphony. Once more with feeling!

Utah Philharmonia Tchaikovsky 5 Reboot: Thursday, November 5. 7:30 p.m.


Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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