Monday, February 9, 2009

Cheesy Classical Music You Should Know: Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto

As a kid, I first came across classical music in a commercial that ran on TV for one of those compilations that promised to send you on a journey to an enchanted land filled with enduring musical wonders.  Most of the music came off to me as pretty well all the same, but there was one piece that stuck out from the rest.  

The opening of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, with the pianist pounding out the beat behind the thick syrup-pour of strings, seemed at once completely out of place with the other "relaxing classics" and their epitome.  While other pieces whispered apologetically, Tchaikovsky's concerto yelled, You are going to listen to some beautiful classical music now!  It was unashamedly, flamboyantly, cheesy music. 

It's a staple of the repertoire today--a favorite piece of classical-music cheese--but when Tchaikovsky's concerto premiered in Boston back in 1875, reviewers were, at their most forgiving, skeptical of its staying power and, at their most aggressive, outright dismissive.  A Russian critic panned the piece as "like the first pancake ... a flop"; one Beantown writer described it as "difficult" and "strange," asking "can we ever learn to love such music?"  

Since its ignominious premiere, many have acquired a taste for this stinky piece of musical lindberger, and during the Cold War the piece became a source of national pride--ironically, for Americans.   

In 1958, a young Texan named Van Cliburn shocked Moscow's musical cognoscenti--and the Soviet party bigwigs--by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition with a program that included Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.  

Coming after the launch of Sputnik and at the dawn of the Space Race, Van Cliburn's win made him an unlikely hero at home: he was welcomed back with a ticker-tape parade in New York City and was hailed on the cover of Time as "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."  His recording of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto won a Grammy and went on to become the first platinum-selling classical album.  

Almost 40 years later, in 1987, Van Cliburn stepped into the Cold War spotlight again, emerging from retirement to entertain Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at the White House.