Review: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony

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The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra presented “Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony” this weekend, a program consisting of two nineteenth-century masterpieces led by guest conductor Jonathon Heyward.

Richard Wagner’s Overture from “The Flying Dutchman” started the evening off with Mr. Heyward taking the reigns with confidence and conviction and the orchestra responding in kind. The strings were immediately notable for their warm yet incisive tone, which allowed them to maintain crystal clear clarity throughout even the quietest passages. The Jacksonville Symphony’s fantastic brass section proved they were back in full bloom, leaning into Wagner’s muscular score with intensity and drive. The French Horns, an instrument especially loved by Wagner, were a notable stand out here. Their lines cut through the texture with consistently strong intonation.

Second on the program was Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s monumental Fifth Symphony. After some helpful opening remarks by Jonathon Heyward on the structure of the piece, the famously haunting opening melody for the clarinets began.  They led the journey into Tchaikovsky’s work with nuance, subtlety, and with just the right tinge of melancholy and foreboding.  Tchaikovsky reserved much of his finest writing in this symphony for the woodwind section, which tonight rose to the challenge triumphantly throughout the course of the work. There were many memorable solo lines for oboe, flute, bassoon and clarinet. Mr. Heyward and the symphony proceeded on into the exposition bringing all facets of the work together seamlessly and organically. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is a complex piece containing a seemingly endless range of melodies and orchestral color. Conductor and orchestra were clearly of one mind on all aspects of this formidable score, down to the most miniscule details. The various melodies, tempi, and dynamic shadings were all handled in a manner that felt natural and coherent. In the second movement the famous French Horn solo, one of the most beloved melodies of any symphony, was phrased by Principal Horn Kevin Reid with nobility and sensitivity that never strayed towards sentiment. The final movement saw the brass section once again deploying their full, visceral power to bring the work to a resounding conclusion, which saw the audience justifiably leap to its feet in applause.

Conductor Jonathon Heyward is clearly a great communicator with both orchestra and audience. It was obvious how well he clicked with the orchestra, and one could readily tell there was a high level of mutual admiration and respect. It was also a real treat to once again be to a point where we can enjoy the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in its full glory on the big-boned Romantic repertoire, which had been largely inaccessible for the past year-plus due to COVID-19 protocols and orchestral size restrictions. “Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony” was a feast of riches for lovers of the grand symphonic tradition.

Tim Tuller is the Canon for Music at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville, Florida. Tuller formerly wrote for the Florida Times-Union as classical music reviewer. 

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