This was a concert both sad and exciting — sad because so many of us who were there still miss Jimmy Yannatos very much — and exciting because the concert by the Longy Orchestra in Sanders Theatre last night honored his memory with the premiere of his Concerto for Alto Saxophone that he did not live to hear in person.
James Yannatos was a composer, violinist, conductor (for 45 years) of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, and a good friend to most of the musicians in Boston; he lived into his 83rd year. Kenneth Radnofsky, one of the best saxophone players alive and certainly the best-known worldwide since Sigurd Rascher and Bill Clinton, was lucky enough to commission what turned out to be Jimmy’s last work — and was able to discuss the completed concerto with him three days before the composer died of cancer last October. What we heard last night, with so many of Jimmy’s friends present, was a three-movement concerto of warm tonal harmony and orchestral vividness, with plenty of expression for the soloist, and a wide range of moods slow and fast; Radnofsky’s performance was as heartfelt as it was flawless. Julian Pellicano conducted with expert attentiveness to detail. I didn’t hear the Dies irae that the composer put in at the beginning; I did hear a bit of “Old Hundredth” well concealed in the web of string countermelody that engaged so frequently in dialogue with the saxophone. The concerto is scheduled for further performance at Bard College, in connection with the Bard-Longy partnership, during the coming spring. There’s no better way to pay a tribute to a composer than by performing his work, and all of us who were there were enriched by the opportunity to remember a dear friend, with a new work that will be widely heard.
I have been part of the Longy School community since 1946, but I never heard a Longy orchestra before this evening. Longy doesn’t have space in the Follen Street mansion to field a group of more than 20 players, which would quite fill the stage in Pickman Auditorium; this group, as I learned, rehearses in the Congregational Church behind the nearby Sheraton Commander. From the moment I heard the beautifully balanced and perfectly tuned woodwinds in Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, which began the program, I recognized that this is a first-rate student orchestra. It was a great pleasure to see the players so unified and so attentive at every moment, and the results sounded exactly as one would hope. In the Steppes is a short but exquisite work that is seldom heard, and it displays Borodin’s remarkable melodic and harmonic gift that establishes him as the most elegant of the Russian “Five”; and of that venerable group of accomplished amateurs, only Musorgsky [now the accepted spelling] was more of a pioneer. I’d love to hear Borodin’s Second Symphony played by this orchestra.
I mention Borodin, because it is not he, but Tchaikovsky, who is the most famous Russian composer of symphonies. (“Tchaikovsky’s was the largest talent in Russia,” Igor Stravinsky wrote a century later, “and with the exception of Musorgsky’s, the truest.”) Tchaikovsky wrote six of them, all of them original, ambitious and accomplished; and the Sixth, the famous “Pathétique,” is unquestionably one of the great symphonies of all time, a peak of drama and tragic depth in the years between Schumann of the 1840s and Mahler of the 1890s. Thus it is all the more puzzling that Tchaikovsky in his over-the-top Fifth Symphony (1888), which rounded out the program last night, attains excesses of expressive exaggeration and distortions of form even to the point of vulgarity. It is as though Tchaikovsky had decided that he had not been bombastic enough in the finale of his Fourth Symphony, which had begun with three daringly proportioned but nicely polished and melodically rich movements. The Fifth Symphony has all that bombast and more, and hammers home the cyclic “motto” theme far beyond normal endurance. I counted 30 times in the score where Tchaikovsky writes fff (and twice ffff, in case anyone misses the point). There are good orchestral ideas in the Fifth Symphony, but these are too often obscured by the dynamics and especially by the thickness of the texture, with everybody playing most of the time.
I shouldn’t complain about these things, because the Fifth Symphony (“Tell me you love me”) has always been popular, even the favorite of many listeners, and the orchestra last night gave it their best, which was excellent overall, and everybody had a good time. But I for one would like to see Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony withdrawn from the concert stage for at least a couple of decades, and fine, less-often performed works like the Second Symphony (“Little Russian”) or the orchestral suites take its place on programs. I have complete admiration for Pellicano, who led the Longy Orchestra with total authority and affection. I spoke to him afterward, and asked him to play sometime the First Symphony by Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (the organizing force behind the “Five”), an excellent though not flawless work (did I say the Tchaikovsky Fifth was without flaws?) that to my knowledge has never been performed in Boston. It was a favorite of Beecham and of course is well known in Russia. This should be part of the job of the conservatory and community orchestras: to bring forth some of the lesser-known worthy works and to avoid flogging the warhorses. We obviously have groups who can play these works and play them well — the Longy Orchestra being only the latest confirmation of this rich resource in musical greater Boston.