© 2024 KLCC

136 W 8th Ave
Eugene OR 97401

Contact Us

FCC Applications
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Low notes for the love-struck: The timeless relevance of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony

Vinay Parameswaran will serve as guest conductor for the Eugene Symphony Orchestra's April 18, 2024, performance of “Pathétique” by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Eugene Symphony Orchestra
Vinay Parameswaran will serve as guest conductor for the Eugene Symphony Orchestra's April 18, 2024, performance of “Pathétique” by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

On Thursday, the Eugene Symphony Orchestra presents “Pathétique,” the beloved and passionate final work from famous Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Guest conductor Vinay Parameswaran, a friend and former classmate of the symphony’s resident conductor, Francisco Lecce-Chong, will lead the performance.

Tchaikovsky, whose other works include Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, died in 1893 shortly after the symphony’s premier. In life, he experienced a failed marriage, self-doubt, depression, and unrequited love. The work is dark with beautiful melodies and moments of lightness. Heavy in some parts, exhilarating in others, it immerses listeners in the human condition through themes that remain relevant more than 120 years later.

At 36, Parameswaran has already gained international recognition for his energetic and imaginative programming. He grew up in San Francisco, and studied at Brown University and the Curtis Institute of Music.

Speaking with KLCC, Parameswaran said Pathétique stands apart from Tchaikovsky’s other works in several ways. It opens with the double bass playing two notes, from which a bassoon solo emerges, starting at the lowest register of the instrument. And instead of a rousing finish, it ends with a slow movement.

“A lot of music in this symphony sits in the low register of the orchestra, and it creates an incredibly dark sound where you feel like the music is coming from the earth,” said Parameswaran, who said Pathétique was also Tchaikovsky’s most personal piece.

One of its most beautiful melodies takes place in the first movement. It’s a romantic melody referential to Carmen, the famous opera by French composer Georges Bizet.

The little excerpt Tchaikovsky takes from Carmen is from when Don Jose is singing something that Parameswaran paraphrased as "with one look at you, you took in the entire possession of my soul.’’

“The symphony was dedicated to his nephew, we think, and we think that Tchaikovsky was in love with his nephew. And so this was I think a very personal dedication for him,” Parameswaran said.

While Tchaikovsky didn’t conceal his affection for men, it was a point of some contention when it came to his public reputation. In the introduction to the book “Tchaikovsky Papers: Unlocking the Family Archive,” editor Marina Kostalevsky writes that “in the eyes of the authorities, it would have been unthinkable to accept the idea that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Russia’s national treasure, was a homosexual.”

Such struggles over family, identity, and longing remain relevant today.

“I think we do live in a world now where there still is intolerance. And I think this was a man, Tchaikovsky, who was struggling with that in his existence. And I think one can really hear that in this music. So it is a piece that is incredibly relevant to our times, because I think it can speak to all of us just trying to find who we are as people,” Parameswaran said.

Parameswaran describes the 45-minute piece as a journey from darkness through different characters and emotions, and encourages the audience to pay attention to how the movements are connected from beginning to end.

His promise?

“It’s going to be a great concert.”

The performance takes place April 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.

Jill Burke became KLCC's arts reporter in February, 2023.