(All this week, we're featuring concerts from the ongoing Savannah Music Festival. Hear yesterday's concert.)
As associate artistic director of the Savannah Music Festival, British violinist Daniel Hope has the luxury of calling some of the programming shots. And it's no surprise to find him playing a concert of Russian music. Hope might have studied at London's Royal Academy, but his teacher there was the revered Russian pedagogue Zakhar Bron, who has stirred up Slavic passion — Bron also taught Vadim Repin and Maxim Vengerov, two Novosibirsk violinists who rose to major international careers.
In this program, Hope and his handpicked group of players begin with a musical memorial to Tchaikovsky and close with music by the master himself. When Tchaikovsky died in 1893 at age 53, he left more than a few young Russian composers devastated. Sergei Rachmaninov responded with a brooding, elegiac piano trio dedicated to Tchaikovsky's memory. Anton Arensky went one step further in his Second String Quartet, borrowing one of Tchaikovsky's best-loved melodies (from the song "Legend") to serve as the emotional heart of the piece. There's a palpable air of solemnity in Arensky's music, written for the nontraditional ensemble of violin, viola and two cellos. Arensky later revamped his three-movement piece by extracting the central movement, a set of variations on Tchaikovsky's song, and beefing it up into a stand-alone piece for string orchestra.
Tchaikovsky's Souvenir of Florence, which concludes this concert, sports a sunnier, more vigorous vibe. In early 1890, Tchaikovsky traveled to Florence, Italy, to work on his opera The Queen of Spades. While there, he wrote down a theme that would, in a few months' time, blossom into a piece he promised to the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, a sextet for two each of violins, violas and cellos.
Tchaikovsky sketched out the 35-minute work in less than three weeks, but found the task difficult. It wasn't a lack of ideas, he told his brother Modest, "it's the complexity of the form. There must be six independent yet compatible voices."
After a run-through in Tchaikovsky's apartment in November 1890, with Alexander Glazunov and Anatol Liadov in the room, the sextet received its premiere. But Tchaikovsky wasn't totally satisfied. In November 1892, the revised Souvenir of Florence received its formal debut, making it one of Tchaikovsky's last major works. One year later, he would be dead.