Talk about ingrates!
When Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky completed his Piano Concerto No. 1, he consulted with Nikolai Rubinstein, the Russian keyboard virtuoso he hoped would premiere the work. The pianist haughtily told Tchaikovsky his piece was "impossible" and would have to be revised, if not gutted, before any self-respecting artist would play it.
Tchaikovsky did make some changes, but not before he snatched the concerto back from Rubinstein and rededicated it to Hans von Bulow who gave its resoundingly successful premiere Oct. 25, 1875, in Boston.
With the great D-major Violin Concerto composed by Tchaikovsky in spring 1878, the pattern of ingratitude continued. The composer dedicated the piece to the famed pedagogue and concert violinist, Leopold Auer. Alas, Auer proceeded to cut poor Tchaikovsky to the quick, dismissing the concerto as "unpleasant" and "impracticable" and refusing to play it.
The violinist Adolf Brodsky wound up introducing the piece in Vienna in 1881 to less than rapturous critical response. "It is music that stinks to the ear," wrote the imperious Eduard Hanslick.
But the concerto became a hit when Brodsky brought it to Russia in 1882, and a hit it remains despite the enormous technical challenges it poses to would-be conquerors. Like the concertos of Brahms, Bruch, Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, it is a work no violinist could conceive of doing without.
"Some might call the Tchaikovsky a 'war horse,' " says Ruben Gonzalez, the Chicago Symphony concertmaster who will play the concerto with Gisele Ben-Dor and her Annapolis Symphony Orchestra at Maryland Hall at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow. "But it's certainly worked its charm on me. I've been hacking away at it since I was a teen-ager, but I'm still in the honeymoon period. And the honeymoon could easily last another 20 or 30 years!"
It is the richness of Tchaikovsky's emotional content that captivates him the most. "I've never played the second movement the same way twice," he says of the lovely "Canzonetta" that expresses its ineffable sadness with such touching simplicity. "There's always something new to say, some new emotion to express.
"I was practicing it the other night, and my daughter said afterward, 'You made me cry with that, Dad.' Needless to say, I was flattered."
In Mr. Gonzalez, the ASO has attracted a soloist of distinction. A native of Argentina, he has been affiliated with many of the
world's finest ensembles. His appointment as co-concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by Sir Georg Solti in 1986 is testimony to the esteem in which he is held. He presides over the string section of one of the four or five greatest orchestras.
This will be Mr. Gonzalez's second ASO appearance; he and Peter Bay collaborated on a Mendelssohn Concerto in 1988. He is happy to return. "I don't know how you can be a concertmaster and not accept solo work," he says. "It simply gives you more margin, more tools to work with."
The violinist also has begun to establish himself as a conductor, with appearances in Central and South America as well as in Chicago to his credit. "You open up your arms," he laughs, "and Stravinsky's 'Firebird' comes out! I find myself saying, 'My God, this is so much fun!' "
He is quick to credit his work at the Yoga School of Buenos Aires for his willingness to explore these new musical paths. "My work there has been opening many new doors for me," he says. "I'm conducting. I'm composing some. I'm becoming more involved with tango and jazz. Now that things are no longer repressed, I'm finding these are avenues I just have to open up."