The Other Tchaikowsky

In an act of poetic justice, the other Tchaikowsky, André Tchaikowsky—pianist, composer, and posthumous celebrity—is finally receiving the recognition he craved in his lifetime. His opera, The Merchant of Venice, in a production directed by Keith Warner, comes to the Royal Opera House in July.

It is impossible to consider this setting of a distressing and eternally awkward play without reflecting on the life of its composer, who died leaving it almost complete and regarding it as his magnum opus. Of the many extraordinary tributes paid to him, perhaps the most telling is that of his former manager, Terry Harrison: “If he had been a different character, he could have had a very, very major career.” A different character is exactly what he was forced to become at a very young age. Born Robert Andrzej Krauthammer in 1935, his family was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, and he was then smuggled out to “the Aryan side” with false papers naming him Andrzej Czajkowski, later westernised to André Tchaikowsky.

Shakespeare’s play creates painful ambivalences around Shylock, who is not present in many scenes yet electrifies the drama with each appearance. Warner describes how Tchaikowsky’s music is less ambiguous than the original text, encouraging audiences to “feel deeply for and with Shylock like none of the other characters”. Tchaikowsky’s setting also shows no less interest in Antonio, the merchant placed at Shylock’s mercy, who is shown to be a depressive and a homosexual. His opening lament “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad: it wearies me…” is staged on a therapist’s couch.

This year’s BBC Proms features a remarkable first live performance. Philip Glass recalls meeting Ravi Shankar in the mid 1960s, while studying composition with Nadia Boulanger. He was hired to notate Shankar’s music into a written form that western musicians would be able to play, to create a film soundtrack. He explored a musical tradition of which he was almost entirely ignorant, and at odds with the rigorous classical training he was getting. Some 25years later, Shankar and Glass created Passages, a studio album combining the traditions of Hindustani classical music with Glass’s Minimalism. Working from the original album, a new performing version can be heard at the Royal Albert Hall, with Anoushka Shankar herself performing her father’s role on the sitar.

Shankar is also performing in Edinburgh this summer, in an auspicious year; this year Edinburgh International Festival turns 70. When its first Chair Sir John Falconer—Lord Provost of Edinburgh disclosure—spoke of his ambition that the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival should “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”, he could barely have imagined that Edinburgh would become the definitive global Festival city, and a model of arts production copied around the world. Classical music has always been a central part of the Edinburgh programme, and this year special concerts will feature both works premiered at the Festival and works performed in the opening season back in 1947. Edinburgh is always a place to seek out new experiences, and a new commission this year, Staffa, brings together a film and a score, inspired by Mendelssohn’s journey to the Hebrides.

Among the list of performing artists of world stature, violinist Ilya Gringolts brings his quartet to Edinburgh’s Queens Hall. Gringolts, brother-in-law of Maxim Vengerov, says of his upbringing “It was just a thing to do—not to be reduced to a stereotype, but in Russia a Jewish boy had to play the violin, so I didn’t ask any questions.” Gringolts won First Prize in the 1998 Paganini Competition, also receiving a special prize for being the youngest-ever competitor to be placed in the final. He was a junior prizewinner in the Menuhin International Violin Competition. However, he has said some bracing things about the competition culture in which he was groomed: “at the end of each school year there would be something called “otchyotny koncert”, loosely a “report performance”, an animal of the bygone era where teachers were reporting on their achievements by exposing their unsuspecting students to a jeering crowd.

Competitions, be it regional or countrywide, were part of the system. I did around one each year, starting at nine. My grand warhorse then was the lovely Concerto No. 13 by Kreutzer, a work duly forgotten by humankind the moment it left the publishing house, but lovingly preserved for competition purposes in Russia… I don’t remember having any feelings.” Thankfully, his quartet will not be performing Kreutzer in Edinburgh, but Brahms.

Every year at the Edinburgh Fringe, comedy songwriters try their luck on the circuit, and every year you can hear the influence of Tom Lehrer, the American mathematician who wrote satirical songs in his spare time. Lehrer’s classics often tell the joke in the title, like “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, “The Old Dope Peddler” and “The Masochism Tango”. The listener is then left with two minutes of Lehrer’s wit expanding on his chosen theme, spinning improbable rhymes at the piano, and enunciating fiercely. The man even managed to rhyme “Yom Kippur” with “Mississipi”, in a song where he also says he’ll be “spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica”. More aggressively, he tackled the phenomenon of toothsome nationwide initiatives in his song “National Brotherhood Week” with a catalogue of hatred, culminating in “everybody hates the Jews”. In interviews, Lehrer has revealed a sort of satirist’s self-hatred, coming from the insight that his material preaches to an audience that doesn’t need it. “I’m fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the ‘30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the second world war.” Fellow musical comedian Adam Kay performs The Remains of Tom Lehrer at Edinburgh’s Gilded Balloon in August.

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