Tchaikovsky festival will sweep you away

Where would we be without Tchaikovsky?

Christmastime would lose some of its magic if it lacked his gift of the "Nutcracker." Fourth of July fireworks wouldn't be as jubilant if they couldn't explode in tandem with the "1812 Overture."

No one minds that the "1812" celebrates a battleground victory that had nothing to do with the United States. That's how right the music feels. Tchaikovsky is even more beloved when he shows up where he does belong - in the concert hall, opera house and ballet theater.

For the next month, he'll be all over Charlotte. Leading cultural groups are joining forces to celebrate the composer who offers audiences so much.

Even people whose lives are nowhere near as turbulent as Tchaikovsky's - luckily for them - gladly get swept away by the musical tempests that grow in part from his personal experiences. Tchaikovsky wound life and art more tightly than any other composer.

He once took a cue for his love life from an opera that Charlotte audiences are about to see. The repercussions of Tchaikovsky's actions helped inspire a symphony that will also ring out this month.

Opera: Eugene Onegin'

Opera Carolina's decision to stage Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" helped set the Tchaikovsky festival in motion. The title character is a self-centered young man who has no purpose in life. As the story unfolds, though, its central character really turns out to be Tatiana, a teenage girl who falls in love with Onegin. He rejects her. Audiences take her to heart.

Where she wins everyone over is the "Letter Scene." Tatiana stays up all night - as condensed into minutes of music - pouring out her feelings in a letter to Onegin. Tchaikovsky's glowing music exudes her innocence, excitement and passion.

After Onegin brushes her off, the repercussions play out through glittering ballroom scenes and a sunrise duel in which his best friend pays the price for Onegin's hard-heartedness. When Onegin and Tatiana are reunited years later, she's a poised young woman married to a nobleman. Onegin is smitten with her, and he makes his move.

Her old feelings return, and so do the most excited strains of the "Letter Scene," sweeping up both their voices. But when Tatiana refuses him, their heartache and regret power a finale that's as explosive as anything in a Tchaikovsky symphony.

"The one line in the last scene that is so poignant is when they both say, 'We were so close to happiness. But it was not to be,' " says James Meena, Opera Carolina's general director.

"We've all made a wrong choice ... or missed something that was right in front of us."

'Nothing is more fruitless'

Early in his work on the opera, Tchaikovsky, like Onegin, received a letter from a young woman who was smitten with him. Antonina Milyukova had admired Tchaikovsky as a student at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught. He didn't take her seriously. Then he thought of his opera.

"I myself, it seemed to me, had behaved incomparably worse than Onegin," Tchaikovsky wrote a friend, "and I was genuinely angry at myself for my heartless treatment of a girl who had fallen in love with me." He resolved to meet her.

She couldn't have known that the 37-year-old Tchaikovsky, despite being homosexual, had decided getting married might give his life stability. At their first face-to-face meeting, Antonina's avowals of love touched him, and he decided she'd do. At their second meeting, he proposed.

It was a disaster. Even at the ceremony, worries overtook the groom. He fled to the countryside without his bride to work on his music, then decided that life with her would be intolerable.

After little more than a month under the same roof with his wife, Tchaikovsky took off, leaving his brother and a friend to tell her he wouldn't return. That set off years of recrimination.

Tchaikovsky learned a lesson.

"Only now ... have I finally begun to understand," he wrote to a brother, "that there is nothing more fruitless than wanting to be other than what I am by nature."

Music: Symphony No. 4

In the midst of the marriage debacle, Tchaikovsky completed "Eugene Onegin" and his Symphony No. 4, which the Charlotte Symphony plays March 30 and 31.

For public consumption, Tchaikovsky let the symphony's tempests and lyricism speak for themselves. But he gave an inside look to Nadezhda von Meck, a confidante and benefactor whom he never met in person. By mutual agreement, their entire relationship - the theme of a Charlotte Symphony KnightSounds concert March 23 - took place via correspondence.

In a letter describing the Fourth Symphony, which he dedicated to von Meck, he says it's an echo of the time he wrote it - meaning the months after his marriage - when he was "severely depressed." The subject, he explains, is fate: a force that "jealously ensures that prosperity and peace never be complete and cloudless, which hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles."

He gives almost a play-by-play description of the symphony. A lilting tune in the first movement, for instance, represents a vision of happiness. Yet fate, embodied by the thunderous theme that opens the symphony, repeatedly interrupts. The slow movement's lyricism is like someone retreating into memories as an escape from turmoil. Tchaikovsky explains the finale's jubilation this way:

"If you can't find reasons for joy within yourself, look at others."

"Go among the common people. See how they are able to make merry. ... Joys there are, simple but powerful. Delight in the merriment of others. Life is still possible."

Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green has written Tchaikovsky's descriptions into his score of the Fourth. When he and an orchestra are rehearsing, Warren-Green says, quoting Tchaikovsky can be just the thing to get the players in tune with the music.

Dance: 'Sleeping Beauty'

The next several years represented a "trough" for Tchaikovsky creatively, in the view of biographer David Brown. When Tchaikovsky finally pulled himself out of the slump, one of his triumphs was "Sleeping Beauty," which N.C. Dance Theatre performs beginning Thursday.

"There's nothing more beautiful than 'Sleeping Beauty', " says Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, NCDT's artistic director.

The heroine, of course, is the fairy-tale Princess Aurora, who falls into a 100-year slumber because of an evil fairy's curse. Onstage, she has to embody the grace and poetry of classical ballet. It's a challenge, but there's an extra reward.

"There's acting in it," says NCDT's Patricia McBride, who danced the role herself. "You can really get into it."

The Sugar Plum Fairy from the "Nutcracker" has only one persona, McBride says. In "Sleeping Beauty," Aurora first appears as a teenager at her birthday party, then returns in the form of a vision beheld by the prince who will eventually save her. The second time, she needs to convey a whole new aura, because "she's not real."

Bonnefoux, who performed the role of the prince, thinks that vision gets to the essence of the story. It gives the prince a mission. "It's the hope of the eternal love," Bonnefoux says. "There's only one. You want to find her."

Agony and bliss of love

Tchaikovsky's benefactor, von Meck, once asked if he had ever known love. Since he never told her about his orientation, he answered obliquely, invoking his music.

"If you ask me whether I understand the full might, the full immeasurable force of this feeling, then I shall answer: yes, yes and yes."

"I have attempted lovingly to express the anguish and also the bliss of love. Whether I have succeeded, I do not know - or rather, I leave it to others to judge."

The answer from generations of music lovers has been: Yes.