When Tchaikovsky Conducted in Baltimore


May 15, 1991|By DENNIS BARTEL

One hundred years ago today Baltimore received its most honored musical guest, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The great Russian composer, just turned 51, had come to America at the invitation of the conductor of the New York Symphony Society Orchestra, Walter Damrosch, to participate in the Carnegie Hall inaugural festival. It would be his only overseas journey.

Tchaikovsky had deeply mixed feelings about making the trip, as he did about nearly everything in his life. He had always dreamed of seeing America, but whenever he traveled he suffered from homesickness -- ''a terrible, inexpressible, fiercely poignant despair.''

This journey was even worse than others. Just hours before sailing from Le Havre, he had learned of the death of his only sister, and grieved all the way across the Atlantic. By the time he disembarked from the French steamer Le Bretagne in New York he was frantic to return home immediately after his four Carnegie Hall concerts. But he was surprised to find that his itinerary now also included concerts in Baltimore and Philadelphia. He tried to cancel them, but arrangements were already too far along.

After his New York concerts, which were triumphant, and a two-day sight-seeing trip to Niagara Falls, Tchaikovsky boarded

a Pullman for an all-night ride to Baltimore. Despite his exhaustion, he had trouble sleeping, sprawled across the bed, fully clothed. ''I had no strength to undress,'' he recorded in his travel diary.

At dawn the train pulled into Calvert Station and Tchaikovsky was taken to the St. James Hotel at Charles and Centre, where, despite the hotel's advertised ''European Plan,'' he was received ''with cold neglect.'' He slept, breakfasted and walked through a drizzle to Albaugh's Lyceum Theater for rehearsal.

To his dismay, he found the orchestra -- the touring Boston Festival Orchestra led by Victor Herbert -- undermanned, fatigued and under-rehearsed. ''Only four first violins,'' Tchaikovsky complained, ''and the orchestra did not know my 'Third Suite.' Mr. Herbert had not even played it through, although it had been promised that this should be done.''

In place of the ''Third Suite,'' Tchaikovsky substituted the easier ''Serenade for Strings.'' The ''Piano Concerto No. 1'' was also rehearsed, with the young pianist Adele Aus der Ohe, a former pupil of Franz Liszt, who had performed the work with Tchaikovsky in New York. ''The orchestra was impatient,'' said the composer. ''The young leader [concertmaster] behaved in a rather tactless way, and made it too clearly evident that he thought it time to stop.''

Tchaikovsky had just enough time to return in the rain to the hotel and dress in his performance frock coat. The 2 o'clock matinee was far from sold-out, but, reported The Sun, ''none but musical people were present.'' Ticket prices ranged from $1 to $1.50. In addition to Tchaikovsky's works, the overture to Weber's opera ''Der Freischutz,'' and a few miniatures by Victor Herbert were played, led by Herbert. The latter occasioned the only sour notes of the concert. One critic called them ''a bunch of scrappy selections.''

Otherwise, as the papers described, ''the greatest composer living'' and his music was received by the audience with applause that broke into cheers. Tchaikovsky, fairly new at conducting and still somewhat stage-shy, acknowledged the ovations by making curt, comfortable bows. He recorded in his diary, ''I didn't sense any special delight in the audience, at least in comparison with New York.''

Critical reaction boarded on obsequious. The Sun proclaimed: ''Both the Serenade and Piano Concerto were of intense interest, full of the fire and -- of the Russian, the finish and scholarly workmanship of the master and the intelligence and refinement of the artist musician.'' Tchaikovsky was said to have ''conducted his splendid music with force and understanding that inspired the musicians.''

The Baltimore American was no less effusive: ''Mr. Peter Illitsch Tchaikovsky, the czar of composers and directors, has a front like Mars and an eye to threaten or command. In fact, it is hard for any one to be unmusical in his presence. His magnetic personality sways all who are about him. The concert was one of the best ever heard here. Baltimore may congratulate itself as being one of the three cities in America selected to hear Tchaikovsky.''

No sooner had he changed clothes at the hotel when Tchaikovsky was met by Ernest Knabe, a man of colossal girth and hospitality, and owner of one of the nation's largest piano-building firms, the Baltimore-based Knabe Pianoforte Manufactory. Knabe had come to fetch Tchaikovsky to a feast at his home. In attendance was a choice company of about two dozen citizens, including the director of the Peabody Conservatory and the Sun music critic. The meal turned out to be the best Tchaikovsky was served in America. ''Terribly delicious,'' he noted. Knabe zealously kept the wine coming.

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