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The filmmaker-vlogger Tony Zhou has an interesting video essay on YouTube that dissects the cinematography of Michael Bay. Sounds like a pointless exercise, but check it out; it’s not. The takeaway is that even for the much-maligned hack who gave us the Transformers and Bad Boys franchises, there’s a method to the hackery (or the Bayhem, rather). Artistry, even.
So it’s worth remembering that Tchaikovsky was considered a hack in his day, dismissed by critics as a vulgar romantic for whom the prettiness of his melodies masked a lack of depth in his compositional ideas. And like Bay, he had a method, exemplified in his massively popular, difficult, and overplayed violin concerto: Introduce a theme, take a detour, introduce a different theme, take another detour, crank up the tension with some noodling. Then, boom: Return to that first theme again, bigger and badder and louder than ever. Just like when the Autobots show up to rescue Megan Fox at the last moment. It’s totally manipulative, and it totally works.
That’s not to say Bay will someday be remembered as the Tchaikovsky of our day, but who knows? Point is, however maudlin and cheesy it may be, that violin concerto will give you chills no matter how many times you hear it, and for most classical listeners, that’s many, many times. This time, it’s played by Arabella Steinbacher, an up-and-coming Japanese-German violinist, performing with the National Symphony Orchestra in the second program of its current Tchaikovsky mini-fest.
Now, one could be snobby and say there’s little reason to devote a whole program, much less a whole series of programs, to highlighting one of the most famous composers in history, other than to sell lots of tickets. And based on the number of people who clapped between movements on Thursday, there were a fair number of first-timers in the crowd, so it seems to have worked. (Note to newbies: clapping at the end of every movement, instead of at the end of the piece, is for some reason considered a major faux pas in classical music that reveals you to be a newbie. On the other hand, complaining about the newbies clapping between movements is what reveals others to be snobs. So if someone sneers at you for clapping, feel free to slap them.)
But given the dire financial situation of most orchestras, having lots of first-timers show up is not a bad thing, nor is putting on an accessible program that makes sure there will be a second time for them; a Tchaikovsky mini-fest is more of a seat-filler than that Stravinsky mini-fest earlier this season, that’s for sure. It’s a little surprising, then, that of the three symphonies they picked for three of the programs, they included the not-so-great 5th (next week) and not the best-loved 6th, the Pathétique. But there’s a method to this, too: This week’s symphony, the 4th, cannibalizes some elements from the first and last movements of last week’s, and this week’s opener, the symphonic poem Fatum, shares with the 4th symphony a common theme: “fate,” whatever that may mean.
Like a Bay film, though, a Tchaikovsky concert does not attract an audience looking for existential meditations on fate. You’re there for Megan Fox, er, pretty melodies, which you get plenty of. Famous as the violin concerto is, it’s hard to be surprised by it, though Steinbacher handles it beautifully, if a little hesitantly at first. This may have been by design, though, too: Steinbacher’s playing style—-wide vibrato and unhurried, stately pacing—-comes off as supremely self-assured rather than meek. So her smallish sound in the first movement builds up to a strong finish in the last. For the cadenza, she tools around with chords, plucking, and lots of harmonics, showier than some soloists but, for a piece so difficult and “uncomfortable to play,” according to Itzhak Perlman, a little showiness is to be expected.
The bookends were quite nice as well. The 4th Symphony, probably the closest candidate to the 6th for Tchaikovsky’s best, is performed enough that any orchestra can sleepwalk through it and do it well. And while Christoph Eschenbach didn’t do anything too wild, he had his own showy impulses, most memorably conducting the entire pizzicato (string plucking) sequence in the scherzo by simply nodding his head, arms at his sides. And in both the symphony and Fatum, he would exaggerate the tempo and dynamics contrasts by slowing down and hushing up the slow parts, speeding up and blowing up the fast parts. The result wasn’t always crisp, but it flowed in a way that felt organic and right. And, most of all, those booms boomed all the louder. It gave you that sense of immense scale and historical importance, of heroism and danger and the world coming to an end in a flurry of quick cuts. In a word, Bayhem.
The program repeats Friday, January 30 and Saturday, January 31 at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10 – $85.