On Saturday night I went to see Professor Ben Shute’s faculty recital of four works by Tchaikovsky, including the violin concerto in D major, considered to be one of the most important in this category of violin literature. During intermission, I remembered that the last time I heard Tchaikovsky played by a live orchestra was at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow. A performance in Rubendall, despite its amazing transformation last year, does not quite achieve the same effect as one in the Russian state concert hall. The inside is old-fashioned – completely white with columns framing a giant organ above the stage surrounding hundreds of white painted wooden seats, resembling none of the concert halls I have seen in the United States.
This is where the International Tchaikovsky Competition is held, and the musicians receive considerable press. First prize of the competition is so prestigious that sometimes it is not even awarded, and the top two contestants instead share the second prize, particularly in the violin category. The competition was established at the height of the Cold War in 1958 to showcase the sophistication of Culture. When American pianist Van Cliburn won first prize that year in an upset, he earned an eight-minute standing ovation at the finale. The nervous judges felt the need to ask Premier Khrushchev permission to present the award to an American. Cliburn became an overnight celebrity, and would later perform for future Premiers and American presidents.
The second half of the concert was the concerto, and despite the fact that Professor Shute is an expert in Bach, his style of playing was very well suited to this type of extremely technical piece. He and his accompanist were extremely connected and suited each other very well. As the third movement built to the end, the excitement was building in the room and with the final chord the audience quickly stood. This was one of the best concerts on campus this year, and earned he ovation that was appropriate, but after the two curtain calls that are requisite for a Dickinson concert, the clapping was over in just a few minutes. I wondered what the response would have been in Tchaikovsky Hall. No doubt the clapping would have lasted twice as long, and likely would have settled into an even rhythm as Russians are prone to do. I mentioned this to my friend with whom I was sitting, but perhaps I should have started clapping in time.