Orchestras everywhere have been trying various projects aimed at putting a fresh spin on the classical concert experience. One of the most persuasive, to my eyes and ears, is the "symphonic play" developed by Didi Balle and championed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which appointed her playwright-in-residence in 2013.
What I admire most about these products is that they are not -- to borrow Anna Russell's wonderful line -- "written by great experts for the edification of other great experts." Balle can cover a lot of historical ground and reveal a good amount of valuable personal detail about the the subjects, all the while avoiding any whiff of the pedantic.
Even when there has been more emphasis on the "play" than the "symphonic" ("A Composer Fit for a King: Wagner and Ludwig II" struck me as a little too talky, for example), the works have invariably proved to be thoughtful, informative and entertaining. Above all, they make it easy to appreciate familiar composers and their music in a refreshing way.
This was especially so in "Shostakovich: Notes for Stalin," commissioned and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra and given a terrific BSO presentation earlier this season. The latest symphonic play, "Tchaikovsky: Mad But For Music," unveiled last weekend by the BSO, is another winner. (In a madcap mood, I took a few days off this week, which is my excuse for the tardiness of this blog post.)
The format follows the path of the Shostakovich play -- putting the dialogue first, interspersed with musical excerpts, then segueing seamlessly into a complete performance of a major work. That major work in both plays happens to have the designation, Symphony No. 5. (Intriguing, isn't it, how several composers seemed to get extra infusions of inspiration when they hit No. 5 -- Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams.)
Balle's Tchaikovsky play concerns the emotional torment surrounding the composer's ill-fated decision to marry Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova and circumstances leading up to the writing of his Fifth Symphony. In addition to Tchaikovsky, the character of his brother, Modest, is part of the story. And Tchaikovsky's patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, makes a brief appearance.
There is conflation or massaging of events and some conjecture, along with humor. If there isn't as much heat in the drama as there is in the Shostakovich piece (hard to match the issues and dangers for that composer during Stalin's reign), there is just enough spice.
Significantly, the playwright takes a sensitive, uncomplicated approach to the composer's sexual orientation. My guess is that most orchestras even today would find a way to skirt around this issue, in case it might make some folks uncomfortable.
Balle is admirably up-front and downright casual about it, in keeping with contemporary scholarship that has pretty much debunked the stereotype of Tchaikovsky as a terribly self-tortured gay soul. That tone makes this play all the stronger at a time when some folks in Putin's Russia are apparently rewriting history to give Tchaikovsky a retroactive version of ex-gay therapy.
The play received a brisk semi-staging Saturday night at Meyerhoff Hall directed by Balle and featuring an effective cast that included Pete Bradbury (Tchaikovsky), Steve Tague (Modest) and Katie DeBuys (Antonina).
The Fifth Symphony, which Marin Alsop and the BSO delivered in polished, powerful fashion a few days earlier during a regular subscription concert, was again performed with a vivid sweep. The large audience sounded very pleased afterward.