ALBANY — To say Pytor Tchaikovsky lived a troubled life would understate his music.
His 53 years on this earth were marred by depression. Though music historians debate whether that had an influence on his work, David Alan Miller often points out how it had a likely effect on his appearance. Portraits of the composer while in his 40s made him appear more like in his 80s.
Tchaikovsky is a favorite of Miller’s, something the late symphonist would have appreciated after debuting his fifth symphony to an unappreciative world in 1888. The composer would write one more symphony before his sudden death — Miller is one of many who believe he died by suicide — in 1893. The ASO music director chose Symphony No. 5 among three works to open the new season on Saturday, Oct 8. The subsequent reaction from the Albany Palace audience would have undoubtedly moved the composer to tears.
The orchestra’s 2022-2023 Season began with a one-on-one discussion between Miller and composer Joel Thompson, whose “An Act of Resistance” would be the opening composition that night. Thompson described his first orchestral work as “a battle between selfishness and empathy, pride versus love.”
“An Act of Resistance” was a powerful anthem that started with the marching cadence of a snare drum, calling the audience to order. It was reminiscent of a simple, cinematic score that didn’t try to be anything more, except towards the end. Thompson, who is also well-known for his choral work, opens players in the orchestra to voluntarily stand and sing.
“The act requires a certain vulnerability,” Thompson said. “It can be perceived as cheesy; It can elicit negative reactions. Only a few people may choose to do it, and therefore be lonely. It can be uncomfortable. But such is the love that is required to truly change our current circumstance.”
The Palace audience responded with a standing ovation.
Stagehands then rolled a Steinway grand piano out to center stage before pianist Stewart Goodyear’s ASO debut, a performance of Evard Grieg’s Piano Concerto.
Grieg’s only piano concerto is a challenging piece, one that demands exceptional precision and dexterity — what would be the common theme for the night. It also holds the unfortunate distinction of being the work over which pianist Simon Barere died after having played the first few bars while with the Philadelphia Orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1951.
Goodyear is regarded as one of the best pianists of our time. He is a generational talent who has performed with, and has been commissioned by, many of the world’s major orchestras and chamber ensembles. Watching him perform on stage exemplified the magic of live music. Grieg’s concerto is familiar to common fans, there’s beauty in the sound as it is played. However, watching Goodyear repeatedly clench his hands into fists and then flex them open while the composition called for the piano to be silent, lent for a profound appreciation for the physical demands of the performance. In those moments, he appeared to go through measured breathing exercises, preparing for the next torrent of keystrokes.
Goodyear received the evening’s second standing ovation.
The orchestra returned to the stage to perform Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 following the night’s intermission. Its four movements typically run for 50 minutes, the last of which features rapid changes. The violinists are always the most visible of the orchestra’s players. Observing them play the final moments of the symphony, one could sense their fatigue — though not evident in their performance. The effort was, no doubt, grueling. Watching them sway to and fro in their seats, their fingers dancing swiftly across their fretboards, was yet another reminder as to why live music is sustenance to the human spirit.
Author Wilson Strutte was quoted in the night’s program as stating, “The real tragedy of Tchaikovsky is that he spent a great part of his life under the shadow of imaginary horrors created by his own sensitive and tortured nature.”
The end of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was followed by the night’s third and final standing ovation.