Any popularity contest for classical composers would find Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky ranking among the top vote-getters. This would be as true of a contest held today, 50 years ago or 100 years ago. For a refresher course on why this is so, check out the Kennedy Center's Tchaikovsky Festival, which opened this week, runs through the month and spills over into 2004.
"Tchaikovsky is so accessible," says Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser. "There is an unmistakable Tchaikovsky sound. What's startling is how much, how different and how rich his work is. Add the operas Mazeppa and Eugene Onegin to the ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker to symphonic works and chamber music, and it's pretty astonishing."
With its several theaters, the Kennedy Center makes an ideal venue for a single-focus, yet multidiscipline, festival. There will be string quartets and songs in one spot, orchestral works in another, dance and opera in a third. "One of the particular strengths of the center is that we can work across art forms," Kaiser says. "So in this festival, it's all Tchaikovsky, but it's all different. People who only like his symphonic music may find that the festival makes them feel more comfortable to try something else."
For every listener unmoved by Tchaikovsky's soaring or melancholy melodies, vivid instrumental colors and penchant for climactic outbursts (just "a thrilling case of nerves," in the words of British critic Neville Cardus), a legion gratefully embraces them.
It's interesting to note how no amount of critical bashing has ever dislodged the neurotic, heart-on-sleeve Russian composer from the public's affection. Not Eduard Hanslick's peerless one-liner in 1881 against Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto - "It gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear." Nor an 1878 Berlin critic's dismissal of the orchestral work Francesca da Rimini - "An ear-flaying horror." Nor a London critic's 1899 attack on the "broken, incoherent" Piano Concerto No. 1.
Those particular works are among the festival's initial attractions. Tonight in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Leonard Slatkin leads the National Symphony Orchestra and an all-star lineup of soloists. The program includes the Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham, the Piano Concerto No. 1 with Yefim Bronfman and the Rococo Variations with Yo-Yo Ma. Shaham will repeat the concerto tomorrow, Friday and Saturday on an NSO program that also includes Francesca da Rimini and excerpts from Swan Lake (arranged by Igor Stravinsky).
Prime examples of the composer's stylistic traits can be gleaned tomorrow night in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. The Vermeer String Quartet and guests will offer Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 2, a selection of songs (sung by soprano Christine Goerke) and the string sextet known as Souvenir de Florence.
Meanwhile, the Susan Farrell Ballet, which got the festival rolling last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, will continue performing through Saturday a program of works that George Balanchine choreographed to a colorful sampling of music by Tchaikovsky.
The dance side of the festival will pick up again later in the month when the famed Kirov Ballet from St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater arrives bearing productions of two quintessential Tchaikovsky creations - The Nutcracker, choreographed by Kiril Simonov, Dec. 23--28; and Swan Lake, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, Dec. 30--Jan. 4.
The Mariinsky's equally admired Kirov Opera will precede the ballet troupe with productions of Tchaikovsky's best-loved opera, Eugene Onegin (Dec. 16, 17, 19, 20, 21), and one of his most imaginative (though least known in the West), Mazeppa (Dec. 18 and 20). Both works, based on verses by the ultimate Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, will be conducted by Kirov general director Valery Gergiev.
A lecture on Tchaikovsky by Irwin Shainman (Dec. 10) and an NSO Family Concert presentation of a Classical Kids production called Tchaikovsky Discovers America (Dec. 14) round out the festival.
Cynics may suspect that the festival is mainly about cashing in on a proven audience-magnet. "If that were true, we wouldn't be doing Mazeppa," Kaiser says. "If I want to sell tickets, I'd just run four weeks of Nutcracker and call it a day."
Instead, the Tchaikovsky Festival provides a substantial, illuminating exploration of a great composer's creative impulses and the richly varied ways he acted on them.
For tickets and more information, call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324, or visit www. kennedy-center.org.