Tchaikovsky in New York:
On today’s date in 1891, a small group of music patrons gathered at one of New York’s docks to greet the Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who had been invited to America to take part in the grand opening of a new music hall. Back then, it was just called “The Music Hall,” but over time it took on the name of the wealthy steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who funded its construction. “Carnegie is an amazing eccentric,” wrote Tchaikovsky to his friends back in Russia. “He rose from being a telegraph boy, transformed with the passing of years into one of America’s richest men, but one who has remained a simple, modest man who does not at all turn up his nose at anyone.” And, despite his legendary melancholic funks and chronic bouts of homesickness, Tchaikovsky admitted he found the rest of New York rather impressive: “American customs, American hospitality, the very appearance of the town, the remarkable comfort of my accommodations—this is all very much to my taste and if I were younger I would probably be greatly enjoying my stay in an interesting new country.” On the down side, Tchaikovsky reported you couldn’t buy cigarettes on a Sunday, and it was sometimes hard to find a public bathroom when you needed one—a common complaint of New York tourists even today! “All told,” Tchaikovsky concluded, “I am a much bigger fish here than in Europe. Incidentally, Central Park in magnificent.”

Prokofiev and Rochberg chamber premieres:
Today’s date marks the anniversary of the first performances of two 20th century chamber works. On April 25, 1931, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 received its premiere performance by the Brosa Quartet at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Accepting the commission from the Library’s Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Prokofiev set about studying pocket scores of the string quartets of Beethoven, which he perused on trains while shuttling between concert engagements. Prokofiev himself described the work’s opening as “rather classical,” but when the new quartet was premiered in Moscow, the verdict of the all-powerful Association of Proletarian Musicians was that it was too “cosmopolitan,” a pejorative adjective in Soviet arts criticism in the Stalinist Era that meant something like “unacceptably modern.” Our second chamber music premiere occurred on April 25th in 1980, when the Octet for Winds and Strings by the American composer George Rochberg was performed for the first time at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. The occasion was a concert by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, who had commissioned the new piece. At the time, Rochberg was a rather controversial figure for shifting from his earlier, strictly atonal style into a more emotionally charged neo-Romantic approach to music making, often referencing earlier composers and musical styles of the past. The music critic of The New York Times thought he heard a touch of Rachmaninoff in Rochberg’s new piece—an observation that some at the time would translate as really meaning the work was “unacceptably old-fashioned.”

Tower's Violin Concerto:
“In an ideal musical world,” says Joan Tower, “a composer should have a friendly, creative, and ongoing working relationship with performers for whom she writes.” For Tower, who has emerged as one of the most successful American composers of her generation, a friendly, creative, and ongoing relationship with chamber ensembles, symphony orchestras, and soloists has resulted in a number of musical works. Tower’s Violin Concerto, for example, was written for the American violin virtuoso Elmar Oliveira, who gave its premiere performance on today’s date in 1992, at a Utah Symphony concert. Tower wrote the piece with Oliveria in mind: “A lot of violinists are speed freaks,” she wrote, “but Elmar can play both virtuosically and with an innate singing ability.” The more lyrical and emotional heart of the work was written as memorial to Olivera’s older brother, also a violinist, who died of cancer during work on the new concerto. That’s not to say Tower didn’t supply some flashy, pyrotechnical passages for her star soloist, however. As Oliviera put it: “It’s the kind of flashiness an audience can relate to. Joan doesn’t need avant-garde gimmicks, because now she’s completely comfortable speaking her own language, one that is expressive and natural to her.” Or, as Tower herself put it: “Sometimes it’s a struggle to find out what you’re good at. It took me a number of years to decide how I wanted to write with my own voice.”

Gabriela Lena Frank's "Three Latin American Dances":
On today’s date in 2004, the Utah Symphony and conductor Keith Lockhart premiered “Three Latin-American Dances” by the American composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Just a few days later, the same forces recorded Frank’s music for a compact disc release, to be sandwiched between Bernstein’s Symphony Dances from “West Side Story” and Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony Dances.” Frank’s first dance, entitled “Jungle Jaunt” opens with what she calls “an unabashed tribute” to the URBAN jungle evoked in Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Her second dance, “Highland Harawi,” is more melancholy, perhaps a nod to that strain in Rachmaninoff’s music, and evokes the sounds of the bamboo quena flute of the Andes. Her third dance is titled “The Mestizo Waltz,” a pun on the famous “Mephisto Waltz” by Franz Liszt. As Frank explains: “This final [dance] is a lighthearted tribute to the mestizo or mixed-race music of the South American Pacific coast. It evokes the romancero tradition of popular songs and dances that mix influences from indigenous Indian cultures, African slave cultures, and western brass bands.” Frank herself is of mixed Peruvian and Jewish background. When asked about how her heritage affects her music, she replied: “Sometimes the Latin influences are quite evident, and sometimes they are quite subtle. And of course, ‘Latin’ can mean so many different things. There is no one single Latin identity, as any Latino/Latinoamericano would tell you.”

Husa's "Apotheosis of This Earth":
Today is Earth Day—an annual event started in 1970 by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin as an environmental teach-in. Senator Nelson wasn’t the only one concerned back then, either: the Czech-born composer Karel Husa had noticed dead fish floating on a lake located near a power plant. “The plant was producing hot thermal pollution which in turn killed all those fish,” Husa recalled. “In addition, I noticed more beer cans in the water and algae in greater quantities.” A wind band commission provided Husa with an opportunity to create a work he called “Apotheosis of This Earth.” In explaining its title, Husa wrote: “Man’s brutal possession and misuse of nature’s beauty—if continued at today’s reckless speed—can only lead to catastrophe. The composer hopes that the destruction of this beautiful earth can be stopped, so that the tragedy of destruction—musically projected here in the second movement—and the desolation of its aftermath—the “postscript” of this work—can exist only as fantasy, never to become reality.” “Apotheosis of this Earth” was commissioned by the Michigan School Band and Orchestral Association, and its premiere performance took place on April 1, 1970, with Husa himself conducting the University of Michigan Symphony Band at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. It proved a powerful piece of music. “As the Postscript finished,” recalled the composer, “I saw that the students in the band were somehow moved—there were even some tears.”