Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s Wild Tchaikovsky and an Unsuk Chin Premiere at LA Phil

Jim Farber on April 9, 2019
Patricia Kopatchinskaja | Credit: Marco Borggreve

Violin in hand, clad in a pair of ruby-red slippers and a mock tuxedo that looked like it had gone through a twister, Patricia Kopatchinskaja breezed on stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall like Dorothy freshly arrived from Oz.

She was there to perform the seeming predictable Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 with Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė–Tyla and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. What followed, however, was anything but predictable. It was a performance that combined the nimble virtuosity and lyricism of a Jascha Heifetz with a cheeky irreverence for classical music icons worthy of Bugs Bunny.

Kopatchinskaja’s animated style of playing (which included quickly kicking off those ruby slippers and performing barefoot) may have perplexed and even distracted some members of the audience. But for those who attended last summer’s Ojai Music Festival (with Kopatchinskaja as music director and principal soloist) it was exactly the type of brilliantly original, off-kilter interpretation you would have expected. After all, she had opened the Ojai Festival capering among the molding gravestones of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler!

Patricia Kopatchinskaja shaking things up in Ojai | Credit: Jim Farber

If Kopatchinskaja’s performance style was affectation designed for effect it would qualify as extraneous gimmickry. It is not. All of that playful body language — the energetic head bobbing to the music, the deliberate “come on, let’s go” eye contact with the other players, her foot stomping, is all part of her interpretation and expression. When she exaggerates, it is to make a point, as if to say to her audience, “don’t get too comfortable, listen, there is another way to express this melody you may not expect.”

Delving Deep

On her blog, My Kitchen, Kopatchinskaja quotes the influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who essentially trashed Tchaikovsky’s concerto as a work that, “gives rise to the horrible idea that music can exist which stinks to the ear,” further stating that, “the violin was not played, but beaten black and blue,” labeling the last movement as “odorously Russian,” evoking “the brutal and sad hilarity of a Russian parish fair.”

Rather than talking affront from these criticisms, Kopatchinskaja chooses to embrace them, stating that, “The aim of an authentic interpretation should be to recreate some of these first impressions!”

Provocative as that idea is, it was clear that Kopatchinskaja and Gražinytė–Tyla were musically, historically, and emotionally on the same page. Conductor and soloist wielded their bow and baton like a pair of swashbucklers in a duel between the violin and the orchestra that made everything old sound new again.

Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja in performance

As another part of her research, Kopatchinskaja makes a case that the concerto’s wistful central movement, the Canzonetta, is based on a traditional French folksong that Tchaikovsky might have learned from his French governess. The song is a lament for loves lost. Kopatchinskaja’s almost entirely pianissimo interpretation, she states, is meant to reflect Tchaikovsky’s longing for his male companion, Josip Kotek, who assisted in the writing of the concerto during an idyllic Swiss summer in 1877. She sees the movement as Tchaikovsky’s elegy to “the love that dare not speak its name.”

It was in the final movement, Allegro vivacissimo, that Kopatchinskaja and Gražinytė–Tyla pulled out all the stops, letting the melodic sections bloom while exaggerating the rustic, “odorously Russian” sections with Kopatchinskaja beating her violin “black and blue” and stomping her foot like a tipsy peasant.

Ever mischievous, Kopatchinskaja returned to stage following an extended ovation — not with her violin, but with an upright piano! Like a magician she donned a pair of black gloves then proceeded to pound out György Kurtág’s slam-bam Homage to Tchaikovsky. It was perfect.

An Unfortunate Pairing

Clearly the Los Angeles Philharmonic deserves a great deal of praise for the number of commissions it has undertaken as part of the centenary celebration. Friday’s concert, however, felt as though the premiere of Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Spira, A Concerto for Orchestra had been shoehorned into a pre-existing program with little regard for how the pieces fit together.

Unsuk Chin

In her music, Chin employs a vast sonic vocabulary. Melody is almost entirely absent in favor of complex, atonal effects that vary from minute instrumental statements to the full magnitude of what she calls the “super-orchestra.” It’s a formula that did not profit from following the exuberant romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s concerto. It made equally little sense to follow it with the French atmospheric evocations of Claude Debussy’s La mer.

Spira references a recurring mathematical form in nature called a “growth spiral.” It is composed for an exceptionally large orchestra with no fewer than six percussionists. Its complexities evolve out of simplicity — a central structure Chin refers to an “ur-cell.” It is first presented by a pair of bowed, antiphonally placed vibraphones. The piece then develops, she writes, “as if zooming in with a microscope to research the inner life of sound.”

The pure tones of the marimbas provide a “let-there-be-light” effect that is gradually expanded and layered by a gradual awakening in the winds and undercurrents in strings. And while Chin talks about zooming in, there is an equally impressive sense of zooming out. The music becomes a macro/micro universe built upon sweeping chromatic nebulas, fluctuating pulsars, and staccato streaks.

Chin’s time spent as a former student of Györgi Ligeti is strongly evident in Spira, as the music creates otherworldly atmospheres and sonic effects by contrasting and layering orchestral voices. As in Chin’s opera, Alice in Wonderland, the listener is drawn into a series of immersive landscapes built on densely layered instrumental strata. To use Chin’s words, “unprecedented textures, sonorities, and forms.”

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla | Credit: Deutsche Grammophon

Gražinytė–Tyla (who recently canceled what was to have been her Bay Area debut) displayed an adept touch for creating and developing the chromatic coloration of the work combining pinpoint accuracy with sweeping intergalactically scaled effects.

In comparison, the rendition of La mer that followed seemed tepid, barely registering a 5 on the Beaufort Wind Scale: “Fresh Breeze: moderate waves that grow longer in shape, possible spray.”