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Tchaikovsky's Symp. #6 Pathétique as dance music

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Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine each choreographed a movement to the Symphony for the work that closed NYCB's 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival.

According to Choregraphy by George Balanchine, entry 420,

Note: The first movement of the symphony was omitted; the second, ALLEGRO CON GRAZIA, was choreographed by Ribbins; the third, ALLEGRO MOLTO VIVACE, was played by the orchestra with curtain lowered. The fourth and final movement was Balanchine's ADAGIO LAMENTOSO: Women mourners dance in grief; angels with tall white wings and hooded figures in purple are followed by a procession of monks who prostrate themselves to form a living cross; a child enters carrying a candle. To the final chords, the child extinguishes the candle.

This was interpreted widely as Balanchine's expression of his own mortality.

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There was something to parts of that symphony for NYCB's 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival. I only remember two movements, although I have a vague sense that someone(Bonnefous perhaps?) choreographed a third movement.

Robbins used the waltz in 5/4. Even though the entry at NYCBallet.com notes the principal dancers as Kistler and Lavery, I'm pretty sure McBride and Tomasson were the principals for that movement. It was clear that Robbins was fulfilling an assignment, not following a muse.

The Adagio Lamentoso was choreographed by Balanchine. It was widely regarded as a memorial to himself. There was a corps of adults in huge, soaring wings (photo) doing what looked like the Angels' dance -- with the smallest children -- that opens Act II of the Nutcracker, with the dancers crossing the stage in tiny steps, looking as though they were on roller skates, in opposing diagonals. Three women, (Fugate, Saland and von Aroldingen) were featured as "chief mourners."

If there was a third movement -- or a fourth -- I have no concrete memory of it.

Editing to add: Writing as Helene was posting.

Editing to add: I think the ballet received only two performances. The Adagio was repeated alone a third time, I believe to commemorate his death, but not at the time of his passing.

Edited by carbro
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Editing to add: I think the ballet received only two performances. The Adagio was repeated alone a third time, I believe to commemorate his death, but not at the time of his passing.

My memory is slightly different, though not necessarily accurate. I thought the ballet as a whole had only one performance as Mr B wanted the Adagio Lamentosa performed only once, ever.

It was then repeated as the final ballet of the final performance of the season (when there were still Sunday evening performances) as a "salute" to his passing.

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Even though the entry at NYCBallet.com notes the principal dancers as Kistler and Lavery, I'm pretty sure McBride and Tomasson were the principals for that movement.
Whew! What a relief! Kisselgoff's review of the premiere (accessible to all) supports this recollection.

Kisselgoff also elaborates on the closing of the ballet:

A small boy, symbolizing the soul of the departed, enters. . . .

''The wonderful pure soul, still innocent, is this little boy,'' [balanchine] said. ''All great mystics have this kind of story.'' The Sufi parable reads as follows: A small boy enters with a candle. A man asks, ''Tell me where this light comes from.'' The boy blows out the candle and replies, ''If you tell me where this light went, I will tell you where it comes from.''

And so when the boy on stage blew out his candle, Mr. Balanchine made his strongest statement about what he calls the real world - as opposed to the visible world in which we live. Like so much in this festival, the ballet's style harks back to an esthetic of the 1930's, to a vogue for symphonic ballets with cosmic themes. At the same time, ''Adagio Lamentoso'' is George Balanchine's most personal statement about a composer and his music. It was a daring, disturbing and moving way to end the Tchaikovsky Festival.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

As part of its multi-week Tschaikovsky Festival, tonight Lorin Maazel conducted the NY Philharmonic in Tschaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, which culminates with the Adagio Lamentoso. Mr. B's 1981 ballet, that closed NYCB's Tschaikovsky Festival, was part of the multi-media presentation given as the first half of the program.

The presentation began with the catastrophic wedding night scene from Ken Russell's 1970 biopic, The Music Lovers, the composer totally clothed, she totally not. The soundtrack was replaced by the live Phil, conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Joseph Horowitz, assisted by actor Tom Hewitt, guided us through the life of the composer, and an analysis of the symphony. From some notes inserted in the program, it seems the theory that Tschaikovsky committed suicide a few days after the symphony's debut is now quite suspect, based on previously suppressed records from Tsarist and Soviet times, citing scholars Alexander Poznansky (who specifically attacks the notion that the composer was being blackmailed) and David Brown. Back to the presentation, Mr. B. was quoted as saying that the work was "like" a suicide note. He also found that the scampering opening notes of the third movement were mice. While there is a film of NYCB's performance of the final movement, NYP's site tells us that it is of too poor quality to be shown. So the presentation closed with the final portion of that movement, as photographs of Balanchine's Adagio Lamentoso by Paul Kolnik and Martha Swope were projected. I'd remembered that the wings were large, but they were even larger than memory, no wonder the women did not dance! They were made by Kemit Love, of Muppets fame. To carry through the boy-with-burning-candle motiv, a vid of a burning candle was projected, at first layered over the last few photos, then by itself, extinguishing as the music did...

The performance. It was fitting that Maestro Maazel conducted, as he has conducted everything else in this festival. But even moreso, in that the conductor shares with Mr. Balanchine a deep love for Tschaikovsky (you can see his moving discussion of the composer on the Phil's site). His early teacher was Russian, and Tschaikovsky's was the first music he heard. As a fledging violinist, he played the Violin Concerto. Mr. Maazel views Tschaikovsky as a classical composer, and plays his works accordingly. Two nights earlier I heard his performance of the Fifth. The soon-to-retire (as music director) conductor, who has at times earlier in the run looked physically tired, seemed to find the fountain of youth, conducting with extreme physical vigor, clearly seeing the final movement as triumphant (or as much as could be so for the self-doubting composer in fear of his spiritual fate), rooting for Mr. T. Arms raised in a V of exultation for the final notes, then leaping up and off the podium into the orchestra after the last note. Fortunately he conducts sans score! The audience as a mass leapt up as well. Sometimes standing ovations simply just happen from literal physical possession. Throughout the bows he looked stunned by his daring leap, yet so enervated that he virtually skipped back onstage for one bow, and ran back onstage for another. He faced the audience and shrugged.

But the Sixth is another matter. In the third movement there were Balanchine's mice, and the exciting march music, but as NYC apartment dwellers know, mice aren't nice. And Mr. Maazel mimed a very angry Tschaikovsky as he conducted. Still, after all the melancholy of the first two movements, one could not blame the audience for applauding after the third. Seeming to withdraw deeply within himself, eventually he began the Adagio Lamentoso. At the end the audience was silent, as it was at the end of Mr. B's ballet so many years ago. After a collective breath was taken, we enthusiastically thanked Mr. Maazel for making us feel miserable.

In the presentation much was made of the connection between Gustav Mahler and Tschaikovsky, this Sixth in particular. In the couple of years that Mahler conducted the Philharmonic he gave 16 Tschaikovsky programs, including five of this symphony. It is said that Tschaikovsky's use of an adagio finale had a profound effect on Mahler (and other composers). A few days ago I heard the Boulez/Lucerne Mahler Third, ending with an adagio (one often associated, along with the finale of his Ninth, with Tschaikovsky's finale). But there was a profound difference: when Mahler (or Bruckner) dies, he goes joyously off to Heaven, and invites his listeners to go along with him. Just before Tschaikovsky's dying moments in his adagio, sounds intrude as if from that other place; his must have been a fearful death. In retrospect, how kind of Balanchine to place a blessing upon the composer with his Adagio Lamentoso.

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