The Savannah Philharmonic’s penultimate concert of its ninth season pairs two exceptional scores into a single showcase of the great Romantic era of classical music.
Echoing a similar program at the 2017 Savannah Music Festival, “Brahms vs. Tchaikovsky,” the Philharmonic will perform Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s beloved and sweeping Violin Concerto in D major to open the evening March 24 at the Lucas Theatre. They will close with Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No.4, the composer’s last symphony.
While Tchaikovsky and Brahms might not have enjoyed sharing a bill — they were not fans of each other’s work — the particular coupling of these pieces will be an emotionally wide journey. The Philharmonic has enlisted a supremely talented and young violinist to bring the night’s opening piece to life.
Sirena Huang, winner of the 2017 Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition, will helm the intricate and powerful violin solos of Tchaikovsky’s concerto. Huang made her debut at the age of 9 with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra in 2004. Now 23, she has performed on three continents in 17 countries and as a soloist with over 50 ensembles. She’s played for dignitaries, presidents and kings, all while studying at Juilliard and with many famed violinists.
Huang "lives every note she plays,” said Savannah Philharmonic conductor and artistic director Peter Shannon.
“I’ve heard her perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto before and when she plays it here in Savannah, I know she will have everyone in the palm of her hand. The Lucas is such an intimate venue and to see such mastery and passion up close is something life doesn’t offer much these days," he said. "I’m promising a lot, I know; but when you see her play you’ll understand why I have no hesitation in doing so.”
Huang won First Prize Gold Medalist at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in 2009. No stranger to Tchaikovsky’s famed concerto, having performed it several times throughout her career, Huang finds as she grows in her craft, the music has new breath each time she approaches it.
“I think music is definitely a reflection of who you are as a person,” Huang said. “Throughout the years, when I come back to this piece, every time, I see it in a different light. The piece means something different to me every time. That has a lot to do with me as a person. You’re always changing, so the way you see something, the perspective on what this piece means and what you want to convey and the messages in the music changes with you. Especially with this Tchaikovsky concerto, which I’ve played for many years now. Every time when I come back, there’s something different. That really is what’s amazing about music — there’s always so much more to it.”
Following the dissolution of his marriage to Antonina Miliukova, Tchaikovsky retreated to a resort at Lake Geneva in 1878. As the story goes, he was struggling to write a piano sonata. He was joined by a violin student, Iosif Kotek, and the two began working on piano-violin arrangements. The violin concerto was born out of this collaboration. According the historical record, the emotion of the piece could be rooted in both his failed marriage and his fascination and love for Kotek, who was not only his student, but also his lover.
“First off, this piece, I personally think this is one the great masterpieces ever written,” Huang said. “It’s a huge, huge piece, like 40 minutes. It’s an emotional roller coaster. I find what’s so amazing about this piece is that every note Tchaikovsky writes is with so much purpose and significance. It makes the piece itself so profound.
"As a performer, there really is not a time that you can relax or shut off. You have to be there 150 percent for every single note that you play. That’s quite remarkable. It really does bring an audience on an emotional roller coaster in a way that I think other pieces don’t quite have this effect.
“I think when it comes to playing works like this, everything that we play, we must have a reason why we’re playing this,” Huang continued. “In a way we have to understand why the composer writes this phrase this way. We have to be convinced before we can convince our audience. Whether it’s something you can explain in words, why he wrote it this way, or you just feel something. You have to be completely convinced and understand, inside out, why you’re playing it this way, why he played it this way.”
In contrast to Tchaikovsky’s colorful score, Brahms' more austere approach to composition will counterbalance the evening. His last symphony was composed in the summers of 1884 and 1885 in a resort town near Vienna and enjoyed a successful opening in Meiningen, Germany, in 1885.
“Before we finish off our ninth season with Beethoven’s final Symphony No. 9, I’m very much looking forward to performing Brahms’ last symphony with the Savannah Philharmonic — his Symphony No. 4,” Shannon said. “When you have a masterpiece in front of you, and know that line, or this phrase, or that note is to be played in a certain way, and so one can’t help but relate the parts to the players in one’s mind. In many ways then, for me, the piece is being written for my players.
"The better the music, the more sacred and perfect the preparation has to be. These last two concerts of the Savannah Philharmonic this season will be an all-or-nothing affair.”