Even in this brave new age, the soaring melodies and throbbing passion of legendary 19th-century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky still packs a punch as strong as a fifth of vodka.
His influence seems to be everywhere, deeply rooted in our collective psyches from chirpy ringtones to lushly romantic ballet scores heard each festive season.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra celebrates the iconic artist's legacy by hosting the first-ever Tchaikovsky Festival, being held at various locales and runs from tonight until Nov. 2. The nine-day event kicks off this weekend with a pair of WSO Masterworks concerts led by guest conductor Aziz Shokhakimov, with additional performances by the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir and Winnipeg Chamber Music Society held throughout the week.
The Russian fête caps off with a second Masterworks concert led by WSO's maestro Alexander Mickelthwate, and also includes a free film screening of The Music Lovers and roundtable discussion hosted by Micklethwate and WSO artistic operations associate James Manishen.
"Tchaikovsky's music is the ultimate romantic experience with the most beautiful melodies," Mickelthwate says when asked about the composer's enduring appeal. "There's something utterly human about it -- the deepest joy, and pain -- and his music transcends that."
Born 1840, the internationally renowned composer/conductor/pianist came to prominence for his numerous symphonies, concertos, operas, instrumental and chamber music, as well as evocative scores for ballet's "Big Three:" The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Now widely regarded as the most performed composer in history, Tchaikovsky conducted both in Europe as well as the United States, including, notably, the inaugural concerts at New York City's fabled Carnegie Hall in May 1891. Plagued throughout his life by struggles with depression and closeted homosexuality, the tormented artist died of cholera at age 53.
The Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir's Russian-born and trained artistic director/conductor Yuri Klaz brings a unique perspective to the event, innately in tune with his countryman's artistic sensibility that will be on view during the "Phil's" eclectic program Tchaikovsky and Beyond, which showcases Russian secular and sacred choral music. It promises to be a moving experience for the city musician -- who was named an "Honoured Artist of Russia" by president Boris Yeltsin in 1995 -- who left behind his native Petrozavodsk to become the choir's artistic director in 2000.
"It's very emotional for me, because Russians have gone through so much trouble throughout history," he says. "Sometimes when I conduct Russian music, I feel like I'm also back in Russia. It's very nostalgic for me."
One of the works being featured next Sunday afternoon is his favourite choral piece, Sunrise, sung in Russian, and composed by Tchaikovsky's pupil Sergey Taneyev, who coincidentally premiered his mentor's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44 that will be heard during the festival's finale. Klaz credits the a cappella work for launching his own conducting career in the late 1980s after earning second prize in his homeland's national choral competition.
"The piece is a very simple but brilliant idea that moves from darkness to light," he enthuses about the fiendishly difficult, "fantastically" polyphonic work. "I love this piece dearly and it will certainly live in my soul and memory forever."
The Winnipeg Chamber Music Society also presents five of the composer's lesser-known chamber works next Wednesday, including excerpts from his nature-infused The Seasons, op. 37 performed by artistic director/pianist David Moroz with members of the Clearwater String Quartet comprised of: Gwen Hoebig (violin); Karl Stobbe (violin); Daniel Scholz (viola); Yuri Hooker (cello). The intimate concert also features guest award-winning Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev performing the blood-stirring Dumka, op. 59.
"The emotion in Tchaikovsky's music is always so sincere and close to the surface that his works will always be popular with performers and listeners -- there is an immediacy to his musical expression that will never go out of fashion," Moroz said email. "We're also delighted that Ilya (Yakushev) is able to join us to play Tchaikovsky's most dramatic work for solo piano."