FATE & GRACE: MacMillan, Tchaikovsky & Beethoven – Naomi Yoran

The theme of FATE is as old as our western civilization. The first examples which come to my mind are biblical: the stories of Adam & Eve, Lot & his wife, Josef & his brothers… Classical Greek tragedies introduced us to the intense emotional experience which must follow a stage performance of FATE: the catharsis.

Whether the theme of Fate in the last two PSO concerts are connected to the Mid Term Elections, only Bob Moir knows…but since he informs us time & again that a season program is put together three years in advance, I think that I am taking it a bit too far…

Getting back to “my straight face”, I do welcome concerts with a coherent theme and I am especially tuned to music expressing strong emotions- personal and as a reflection of the collective state of human nature.

James MacMillan, a contemporary Scottish composer, found his inspiration in the horrible events following the Reformation in Scotland, where thousand of Catholics (most of them women) had been executed by the new religious regime. It was easy to execute women by declaring them witches. “Confession” followed by sadistic means of murder. The composer was deeply moved by the fate of one young woman, Isobel Gowdie, and the music is dedicated to her. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, is a dramatic, shocking and horrific music which starts with lamentation, builds up to sounds of violent terror and ends with what I felt as eternal sadness combined with eternal serenity. The composer describes his work as “the requiem that Isobel Gowdie never had."  To say that the orchestra performed brilliantly will not do justice to the PSO. I was sitting at the edge of my seat transfixed to the music as though time stopped. At the climax of terror, when the sounds of the full orchestra were at the point of the ultimate violence, I felt it in my spine.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘4th Symphony’ is well known and much beloved. Mariss Jansons conducted it here four years ago and personally, I listened to it many times at home. (One of the CD’s in my collection is this Symphony performed by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra with Mariss Jansons …)

This Symphony, which has no declared program, can not be heard without the profound feeling of Fate. Those who know about Tchaikovsky’s turbulent life, his constant struggle to “fit” in a society which at that time did not tolerate any deviation from expected behavior for a man in his position, can imagine his personal anguish, fear of being judged, the impossibility to escape his fate. Yet, the ‘4th Symphony’ with all it’s powerful sounds, especially at the first & last movements with its reoccurring theme, reveals so much tenderness (second movement) and joy of Russian folk songs (Third & fourth  movement).

Of course, I can always go back to the biographical facts, and find the “the codes” for each theme and melody. (How about the military musical phrases in the third movement as dedication to his man servant who was recruited to the army, much to Tchaikovsky’s distress?)

Let me forget for a minute about this composer’s life and just follow the music. (This was his wish anyway!) Well, there is no escape from feeling fear, struggle, sadness, yearning, and it all ultimately expresses his Fate, especially when paying attention to the first theme which finds itself back in the last movement. However: the Symphony concludes with great joy! In this case, Tchaikovsky’s ‘4th Symphony’ is much similar to Beethoven’s ‘5th Symphony’. The music is (again) undefeated despite Fate! 

This brings me to Beethoven’s ‘2nd Piano Concerto’ which was performed “between” these two powerful works. At first glance the coherence of the program I was talking about falls apart. This Piano Concerto, which I would describe as “music to please” (played with great charm by Barry Douglas) does not fit the FATE theme! But wait one minute- coherence does not need to be so obvious. It can work by association. It worked for me. I can’t escape “knowing Beethoven’s music” as a whole. (15 years will pass from the time of composing the ‘2nd Piano Concerto’ to the ‘5th Symphony’.) “I am ahead of the composer”… There is some inescapable magic it this notion…

If no one will buy this argument, I will offer another: how about a need to pause between two forceful pieces? Just imagine listening to three works of music which produce catharsis!  This program crafted with such care & purpose (I found out later, when we had the great pleasure to meet Marin Alsop after the concert), was for me, a metaphor for a piece of music in 3 movements: Fate, Grace & Fate.

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Nov 13