‘Shadows and Voices: The Last Days of Tchaikovsky’ | AspenTimes.com

‘Shadows and Voices: The Last Days of Tchaikovsky’

Susannah Luthi
Special to The Aspen Times
Conductor Murry Sidlin will explore the secrets of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 on Sunday. AMFS photo by Alex Irvin.

Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, popularly known as “Pathetique,” promises to be illuminating.

Conductor Murry Sidlin will probe into the composer’s life with “Shadows and Voices: The Last Days of Tchaikovsky” ” one in his innovative series of Concert Illuminations programs.

Starting in 1995, Sidlin began writing three to four “concert-dramas” a year when he was with the Oregon Symphony (presently he is dean of the school of music at Catholic University). In an Illuminations program, Sidlin introduces the subject of the work, narrates and conducts, while he lets imagination take full rein.

“Sometimes I enter a dialogue with the audience, as in ‘The Anatomy of the 5th,'” he said. “Sometimes I interview artists who are on video as though they were on stage with me and still alive, as in ‘Aaron Copland’s America,’ and sometimes a screen drops down unexpectedly and Martha Graham pays us a visit in the midst of ‘Appalachian Spring.’ ” In Sunday’s programs, actors take the stage to help resolve the puzzle of Tchaikovsky’s death.

“The end of Tchaikovsky’s life is a great mystery: How he died, what the circumstances were, why there are conflicting medical reports and family observations,” according to Sidlin. “It’s almost as if there were a conspiracy to maintain confusion.”

This program begins with excerpts interspersed with story exposition, acted out by celebrated stage actors Michael York, John Rubinstein and Ursula Meyer playing the roles of Tchaikovsky, his brother Modeste, and his patroness, Madam von Meck, respectively.

“What do we know about Tchaikovsky’s life at the end that we can really trust?” Sidlin mused. “Most of the information we get comes from his brother, Modeste, who is not anxious for us to know the truth, nor are the doctors, nor is his patroness and silent love Madam von Meck. What do we have from all this? We have maybe his most beautiful symphony and a powerful score that takes up different characters in each movement.”

Sidlin’s first Illumination, “Who Killed Mozart?” ” which lines up the six or seven people who wanted Mozart dead and examines their motives ” is, like “Shadows and Voices,” the unraveling of a mystery. He is currently rewriting it, and hopes to present it at the Aspen Music Festival and School next season.

But his most famous is perhaps the moving Defiant Requiem, written in 2002 and aired nationally by PBS in 2003 and 2004. Both poignant and uplifting, it tells the true story of Jews in a Nazi concentration camp who, though about to be killed, organized 16 performances of Verdi’s Requiem.

“It’s a very powerful story about art in life as the salvation of and the greatest weapon against barbaric behavior,” Sidlin said. Constantly jotting down ideas as they occur to him, Sidlin approaches each new project by asking himself questions, and following clues in the music and in history. Then he approaches his works with the goal of opening the music up to his listeners and deepening their understanding.

As he writes the story, told either in dialogue or parallel monologues, Sidlin makes sure that it communicates the emotions he wants it to.

“Then I sketch out who says what, and how, and to whom, and then I begin the long process of bringing it into dramatic form,” he said. “I never present any additional staging or technology that takes from or apologizes for the music. What I do brings people to the music and stimulates their curiosity for wanting to hear it. Perhaps they hear the music with new life, with more information, or with a kind of illumination that didn’t exist before this presentation.”

In his exploration of the Pathetique symphony, Sidlin himself takes the role of a “conductorial Sherlock Holmes to try to figure out what Tchaikovsky, this very gifted genius but extraordinarily confused depressive, had in mind.”

“Does the symphony need my help? No,” Sidlin added. “But will people perhaps be able to go deeper into the work in a way that’s more enjoyable for newcomers? Yes.”

The 4 p.m. program takes place at the Benedict Music Tent. Tickets are $65 and available at the Wheeler Box Office, Harris Concert Hall and the gondola building box office. Seating on the lawn is free. Catch a taste of the concert at the final rehearsal on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. Tickets are $15 or relax with a cup of coffee on the lawn.

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