By NANCY HERMANN
Emanating from the romantic era of music, the work of composer Peter Tchaikovsky is high theatre. Audiences know his sensitive “Sleeping Beauty Waltz,” the swelling love theme from “Romeo and Juliet,” and “The Nutcracker’s” luscious “Waltz of the Flowers.” Along with his famous ballets, Tchaikovsky created the impassioned “1812 Overture” and the tender Violin Concerto in D Major. In total, his oeuvre encompasses 169 works, including concertos, cantatas, ballet, symphonies, opera and songs.
Who is the man behind this music?
Having danced and overseen productions of Tchaikovsky’s ballets over many years, Tulsa Ballet Artistic Director Marcello Angelini knew the composer’s heart. Love and pathos abound in Tchaikovsky’s music, but how and why did those feelings originate? Angelini was keen to have others know and empathize.
“I always felt his story had to be told because it shapes, molds and encompasses the diversity of his music,” suggests Angelini. “Once you know the man behind the music, you can actually hear his words through his melodies ― whether those are words of passion or an expression of struggle, or a sign that he is giving up on life and society.”
Angelini first had an idea for a ballet based on Tchaikovsky’s life in 1999. For several reasons, he thought Tulsa Ballet was not ready to tackle the subject matter. He revisited the idea ten years later, but still hesitated. Then, two years ago he felt it was time to move forward, “to create a non-judgmental work. One meant to open a conversation for whomever chooses to come see it,” he says.
Tulsa Ballet’s resident choreographer and former dancer Ma Cong was chosen to create movement that could best convey the story. Oliver Peter Graber, who had composed music for Tulsa Ballet’s “Dorothy and the Prince,” was asked to construct a score around the piece. He pulled from Tchaikovsky’s music and added compositions from Alexander Glazunov, Mikhail Glinka and Fritz Kreisler, along with original music of his own.
The team of Angelini, Cong, Graber and Russian historian Daniela Kolic met last summer to assemble the various pieces into a whole. After reviewing the most important influences in Tchaikovsky’s life, they decided to center the ballet on three of Tchaikovsky’s relationships. One was with the Belgian opera star Desiree Artot, with whom Tchaikovsky was smitten. The woman he did marry for a short time was one of his former students, Antonina Miliukova. She had pursued the composer through passionate letters.
A relationship that was most troublesome for Tchaikovsky at the time, and illegal, was his liaison with the violinist Iosef Kotef. It is said that the composer wrote his Violin Concerto with Kotef’s help, or used him as an inspiration, or both. “They were very private, but very loving,” says Cong of the relationship.
“This ballet is trying to tell people not all, but something about Tchaikovsky’s struggle ― what was troubling him at the time he composed his music,” explains Cong. “Those relationships somewhat changed his life and pushed him further artistically. They inspired him to create the most beautiful music.”
Tchaikovsky was the toast of Russia for a time and revered around the world. He famously came to the United States in 1891 to conduct his music at the grand opening of what would become Carnegie Hall. In 1893, at age 53, three days after premiering his Sixth Symphony, “Pathetique,” in St. Petersburg, he became ill and died. The circumstances surrounding his death are suspect. Some speculate suicide, but the mystery persists.
“I am so happy with the team we assembled, one that I am confident can make this ballet a success,” adds Angelini. “It has been great working with and leading this creative team to arrive at the story we wanted to tell. What is this story? One of judgmental societies. With their taboos and fears of what is different, they destroy the lives of others who are loving human beings just like the rest of us.”
Tulsa Ballet presents “Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music,” Mar. 29-31 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.