by Joanna Rutter and Anthony Harrison
As the last note of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor, “Winter Daydreams” died out, the conductor walked off stage.
An urgent hand from the wings had gestured for him. The audience of hundreds coughed and rustled their programs.
A projector screen hanging over the musicians that had been blank shimmered to life with a blue screen of death and a text bar which flashed, “Searching…” The reason for his departure painfully clear, the conductor hustled back to his mark and addressed the audience with a sheepish smile.
“Good evening, everyone,” Conductor Nate Beversluis said, repeating his exact introduction from 15 minutes prior. “You’re in for something special tonight.”
Uneasy laughter from the audience.
The projector glitch in Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium on Feb. 25 during “Winter Dreams,” a concert of Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre, embodied a Greensboro Symphony gloriously out of sorts: Maestro Dmitry Sitkovetsky was missing due to minor surgery, substituted by Greensboro Youth Symphony conductor Beversluis.
“We’re going to play that movement for you again,” Beversluis continued with sudden sincerity, “and you’re going to see some lovely paintings by Aleksander and Lyuba Titovets. I’m true to my word.”
Even the ensemble of professional musicians couldn’t hide their collective surprise as they flipped back to the score’s first page. Bows lifted in unison again, a hush fell again and Tchaikovsky’s first symphony began, again.
The multisensory experience originally intended via projector screen of more than 250 paintings by the Titovets — a couple from El Paso, Texas via St. Petersburg, Russia — was realized in the second run. Their striking work, reminiscent of Renoir or Whistler, largely romanticized bucolic scenes of a bygone, pastoral Russian empire. Dark and deep wintry forest landscapes accompanied the symphony especially well, and the melding of art and music was an ambitious idea in concept.
In execution, however, the slideshow panned wildly, granting the audience only brief, zooming moments to contemplate each piece before zipping to the next one, like a frenetic jog through a stranger’s vacation photos. Distractingly, there was sometimes no apparent logic in pairing a painting with the musical accompaniment.
Fantasia it was not, but the art provided a fitting complement to Tchaikovsky’s nascent melodic dramatics.
Curiously, Tchaikovsky drew lifelong inspiration from this initial opus even though it represented his most immature music; he confessed to his brother in an 1866 letter of “being unable to shake off the thought that I might soon die without even managing to complete the symphony.” One can sense a young Tchaikovsky discovering a host of concepts throughout the work, tugging at tendrils of ideas, such as an early iteration of his “Waltz of the Flowers” theme from The Nutcracker in the first movement.
Beversluis’ conducting mirrored Tchaikovsky’s manic, youthful intensity — tuxedo tails flapping as he sliced the baton through the air with cartoonish energy, sweeping tai chi-esque gestures, then remaining completely frozen but for a single twitch of his finger, shoulder pads tenting his jacket behind his head. Yet the unity between Beversluis and the orchestra remained tangibly strong.
The eerie, déjà vu recapitulation of the main theme decayed into an awkward smattering of applause — for those unfamiliar, it’s trés gauche to applaud between movements, as it disrupts the flow of the piece.
In this case, the piece had already been disrupted, though not beyond repair.
Perhaps it was the perfect storm of unforeseen variables; perhaps it was the drive to recover from a faux pas over which they had no control. Either way, the orchestra had performed the first movement even better the second time.
Finally, they were allowed to continue enchanting the audience with the seldom-heard symphony.
The second movement began with a light, airy melody developing into a brassy, ominous wall of sound, bringing to mind a barren winter landscape. The scherzo featured a rhythmically intense phrase, tossed from section to section, and the final movement finished with a sumptuously Russian display of bombastic glory, complete with major-key modulation.
After all, Russians know perhaps better than any culture that winter must yield to spring.
Following intermission, the projector screen disappeared, the stage lights went up and the orchestra launched into the iconic tunes of the Sleeping Beauty Suite.
Within the first few measures, a transcendent shift in confidence was readily apparent. Two violinists in the front row shared a smile while playing the sweeping waltz, and Beversluis, turning to the cellists, revealed the gleeful grin of one achieving grace.
The mood was not broken between movements by embarrassed applause. The audience behaved themselves: Something sublime was happening.
In the tentative quiet succeeding the suite’s conclusion, Beversluis gestured at the stunned audience to applaud louder and was satisfied, beads of sweat forming on his brow. Grabbing his microphone, out of breath, he scolded the auditorium good-naturedly: “Next time you hear that, you’ll know when it’s over.”
The orchestra ended the program with the 1812 Overture. While it may seem strange to close with an overture, one this infamous might have overshadowed the rest of the night.
After Tchaikovsky’s varied quotations of “Les Marseillaise” got muddled in their inherent soupiness, a cellist head-banged like a heavy-metal bassist as the orchestra blasted through the familiar, triumphant theme. Though fortissimo timpani substituted for cannon fire at this Quaker institution, the piece lost none of its martial thrill.
The standing ovation given by the audience underscored this victorious finale — for the piece, for the program, for the orchestra and for Beversluis, who beamed with the look of one redeemed.