Tchaikovsky, the American composers to come for the Adrian Symphony Orchestra
ADRIAN – In April 2016, when Bruce Anthony Kiesling came to Adrian as a candidate to become the next musical director of the Adrian Symphony, the concert he conducted included Tchaikovsky’s monumental Fifth Symphony.
And now, for the final orchestral concert of the ASO’s 2021-22 season, Kiesling and the ASO are revisiting that same work with two relatively new pieces by American composers.
The concert, which the ASO has simply titled “Tchaikovsky 5,” will take place on Friday, April 29 at 8 p.m. in the Dawson Auditorium at Adrian College. A classic Kiesling conversation about the music on the evening’s program is at 7 p.m. in the auditorium and is free to all ticket holders.
Tickets are $32/$29/$21 for adults, $30/$27/$21 for seniors, and $18/$15 for students. They are available by dialing 517 264-3121; online at adriansymphony.org; at the ASO office at Mahan Hall, Adrian College; or at the door from two hours before the concert.
The idea of revisiting one of the first pieces ever conducted by Kiesling with the ASO seduced him.
“It’s really fun to come back to it,” he said. “This is a particularly special piece for me, and I can’t wait to do it.”
For a symphony that has earned its place among the greatest in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky himself decided it wasn’t very good. Audiences loved it, but critics lambasted him and — unsurprisingly for someone who struggled with depression and self-doubt — he took the negative reactions more seriously than any positive ones.
“I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure,” he wrote to his boss, Madame von Meck.
He even had a hard time writing it. Eleven years pass between his Fourth and Fifth symphonies, years during which he composes very little, and he fears he will have nothing more to say musically.
“He’s an artist in his 40s wondering what’s left for him,” Kiesling said, and the work reflects that. Much of it sounds like Tchaikovsky is wrestling not just with his personal demons but with the music itself.
“It’s like, ‘I have this idea and it’s not very good.’ It seems like he’s looking for ideas and failing,” Kiesling said.
But gradually the recurring theme, which is often seen as evoking Destiny — just as Tchaikovsky did even more amply in his Fourth Symphony — shifts from an angry tone to something of hope. Kiesling thinks about it like Tchaikovsky grappling with this musical idea, the composer first deciding his effort wasn’t very good but gradually moving to “maybe there really is something here” and finally, by the fourth movement, to “well, that’s not so bad.
Both the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies end with triumphant fourth movements, as if Tchaikovsky has finally found peace with it all. But Kiesling thinks the Fifth has a little something extra in its final move.
“I think the fourth movement (of the Fifth Symphony) is happier than the end of the Fourth Symphony, because it was a much harder journey to get there,” he said. “And that journey is what makes this job so interesting.”
The Fifth Symphony crowns a concert that also includes two American works, “Blue Cathedral” by Jennifer Higdon and “Reflections on the Mississippi” by Michael Daugherty, a tuba concerto to be performed by guest artist Jarrett McCourt.
Higdon’s 2000 work was commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music for its 75th anniversary. She honors the memory of her late brother Andrew Blue – hence the name of the work – by imagining a glass cathedral in the sky and the passage of the soul after death.
“It’s a joyous celebration of life,” Kiesling said. “I think the piece is extremely heartwarming.” And, like another work the ASO recently performed, “Rainbow Body” by Theofanidis, “it’s about the soul’s journey to the next state.”
As for “Reflections on the Mississippi,” it too was written in memory of a deceased family member, in this case Dougherty’s father. In the 2013 four-movement work, Dougherty recalls his father taking the family on a trip down the Mississippi River, and his own subsequent visits to several towns along the river.
The work is just the latest of several the ASO has performed over the years by this particular Michigan-based composer. Kiesling wanted to program a Daugherty work he had never done before, and it also fit the bill of being a different kind of concerto than the usual piano or violin concertos.
One thing that may surprise listeners is the versatility and melody of a tuba. “(Daugherty) uses the tuba so melodic,” Kiesling said.
And in McCourt, audiences will hear a soloist recommended by the composer himself after McCourt gave an acclaimed performance of the work with the New World Symphony.
Although there is one more concert remaining in the entire ASO season – a June 4 performance by the Beach Boys tribute band “Sounds of Summer” – Friday’s concert closes out the orchestral portion of the season. And Kiesling thinks it’s a great way for the orchestra to get out.
After the pandemic disrupted the end of the 2019-20 season and canceled the entire 2020-2021 season, “we’re so happy to be back and happy that our audience keeps coming back,” he said, noting that ticket sales continue to climb as the season progresses. “We’re back in a really meaningful and powerful way.”
If you are going to
WHAT: The ASO performs Tchaikovsky 5, Higdon’s ‘Blue Cathedral’ and Daugherty’s ‘Reflections on the Mississippi’ with guest artist Jarrett McCourt
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, April 29. A Classic Conversation by ASO Music Director Bruce Anthony Kiesling is at 7 p.m.
WHERE: Dawson Auditorium, Adrian College
TICKETS: $32/$29/$21 adults, $30/$27/$21 seniors, $18/$15 students
HOW TO ORDER: By calling 517-264-3121; online at adriansymphony.org; at the ASO office at Mahan Hall, Adrian College; at the door from two hours before the concert