Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 is easy to mess up. It sounds sloppy when performed by a subpar orchestra. The melodic themes can seem rambling if not played with care and expression.
Although the French title Pathétique (generally meaning "pathetic") has been used for the symphony since it was published, the Russian equivalent of the title would actually be translated to "passionate" or "emotional." And a passionate performance is exactly what the audience at the Straz Center heard on Friday when the Florida Orchestra played this masterpiece.
Every movement of the symphony was brought to life in fascinating color. Every melody, especially the popular one that opens the second movement, had shape and momentum. Guest conductor Cristian Macelaru was positively entertaining to watch. And it was obvious that he cared very deeply about the work.
Before they played the symphony, he talked about the audience's role. The third movement is actually the most exciting of the four and ends with great thrill. Most audiences are tempted to clap, but Macelaru pleaded this once to resist in order to experience the work as Tchaikovsky intended — with a moment of silence before the lamentoso finale. He then followed that up with a dramatic cutoff gesture for the third movement that seemed more for the audience than for the orchestra.
Tchaikovsky was more proud of this symphony than any of his other works. Even though he seemed happy in all of his correspondences at the time, he was dealing with a significant amount of stress. Several of his close friends died while writing the symphony and he had a pending legal case against him on a charge of homosexuality. This combined with the fact that he died nine days after its premiere has lead many musicologists to believe the symphony was a musical suicide note, even though he most likely died from cholera contracted by drinking a glass of water that he supposedly didn't know was unboiled.
Before intermission, all of the deep emotions conveyed by the orchestra's performance of the Tchaikovsky were simply not present. The neoclassical Stravinsky ballet Jeu de Cartes was thought-provoking and incredibly precise, though, especially under the baton of Macelaru.
The Concierto Barroco for guitar and orchestra by Roberto Sierra was about the same, except perhaps lacking a bit of precision. Guitar virtuoso Manuel Barrueco was brilliant on his part, but the piece itself is not a grand showpiece. It comes across in dreamlike episodes, some sounding contemporary and some like they were written in the Baroque period. And if the goal is to reimagine the story of the novel on which it was based, then that was certainly achieved by the performance.