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Valentina Lisitsa's outspoken words, outgoing music

A powerful performance for Tchaikovsky agnostics

Charles Olivieri-Munroe. The Photography Of Ivan Fodor ? 2015

Wonderful news for music lovers who hate Tchaikovsky symphonies. On Friday, the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra (RBSO) will be performing a Tchaikovsky symphony.

Now don't turn over the page yet. For this First Symphony is rarely performed. Although the musical resemblance to Tchaikovsky is evident, there is nothing of the morose, suicidal, moody composer. In fact, the First Symphony is guaranteed to lift the spirits of everybody in the Thailand Cultural Centre, no matter their tastes.

This writer, like many others, can tire of the mournful late music by the Russian composer, but in listening to the early Winter Daydreams by the 35-year-old Tchaikovsky, one is listening to a glistening, triumphant, optimistic symphony, perhaps the first modern symphony in Russian.

True enough, a happier composer might have called it Summer Daydreams. But Russia is a winter country. And while 35-years-old is hardly juvenile, the composer had been confessing since his 20s: "I am old and cannot enjoy things anymore. I live on my memories."

Nonetheless, while he later thought it "immature", he loved his First. "It was a sweet sin of my youth." Then, perhaps in acknowledging the gloomy last symphonies, he confessed: "I have a soft spot in my heart for it. In many ways, it is richer and filled with more creative content than my later works."

So why isn't Winter Daydreams played more often? Perhaps listeners believe a gloomy symphony is a better symphony. Bangkok audiences, though, need no excuse to hear it. The opening movement, "Daydreams Of A Winter Journey", is not a psychodrama, but a distillation of the whole Russian landscape. The following "Land Of Mists" is another painting of Russia. (And the oboe call at the end is obviously a cold-weather Russian bird.) After a relatively joyous third movement, Tchaikovsky brings a totally Russian finale, with folk songs, dancing and triumph.

Valentina Lisitsa. IMG Artists/RBSO

The Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra could well have selected another rare symphony, the Second. For the subtitle here is "Little Russia", the 19th-century name for Ukraine. And the soloist for the popular Rachmaninoff First Piano Concerto, Valentina Lisitsa, born in Kiev, the cultural capital of Ukraine, frequently voices her support -- both in private and before concerts -- on the Russian side of the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

True, Lisitsa's heritage is Russian and Polish, and her life is truly international. She started piano at age three, gave her first solo at age four, and decided immediately that her destiny was to be -- wait for it -- a champion chess player.

Fate has different ways of moving its human chess pieces, so at the Kiev Conservatory she met her pianist husband-to-be, they formed a duo and won First Prize in the Miami Two Piano Competition. At that point, having had enough of the Slavic world entirely, they became American citizens, and Valentina made her debut in Lincoln Center at the Mostly Mozart Festival.

The gods were on her side. More than a fine pianist, she is a fiery personality, and her recording of Chopin's Etudes garnered attained on Amazon's classical-music listings. After that, she and her husband put all their savings into a two-CD set of Rachmaninov; five years ago she released all her concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra.

When Decca Records signed her up, some thought it was due to her fame on YouTube, where she's accumulated 5 million viewers. She was sexy, outspoken, aggressive and reached out to the crowds with her theatrical movements.

The question was whether her musicality could equal her voluptuous personality and her contentious views on Eastern European politics.

The critics agreed that she could be sensational -- most notably, Classical Net's Robert Cummings, who wrote: "This may be the finest performance ever made of the concert … filled with passion and longing … and of all the recordings made of the Rachmaninov Second Concerto, this would be my favourite."

My own review on Concerto Net was not quite so enthusiastic, since the performance I heard had been live, recorded. I wrote: "Her hands were as graceful as her notes, she elevated them, she dived down with the elegance of a ballet dancer."

Her own feeling? "I totally reject the Soviet tradition of butchering Rachmaninov, where the men show off how fast and loud they can play and the women show off with sexy, languid pauses."

Whether Charles Olivieri-Munroe -- a very popular conductor who's done previous work here with the orchestra -- can rein her in or allow her to draw out the music to please the crowd. Only time will tell.

This is the second concert given in honour of HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and the opening work celebrates not only the creativity of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but two of his royal and musical colleagues.

King Rama IX was not only a master of the saxophone (Lionel Hampton called him the King of Jazz), but composed many a song, including tonight's Sweet Words. The music was orchestrated by the late M.L. Usni Pramoj -- one of the stalwarts of the Palace Jazz Band -- and the words were written in English and Thai by HH Prince Chakrabandh Pensiri and could well be translated as Baak Waan or Sweet Mouth.

Those who want to know the secret of King Bhumibol's song might consult William Shakespeare's playful 138th sonnet: "When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies ..." In other words, this is a concert encompassing passion, bittersweet memories, and the playful words and melodies of a beloved monarch.

Rachmaninoff By Valentina Lisitsa

Friday, 8pm
At Thailand Cultural Centre, Main Hall

Ticket prices: 400, 800, 1,200, 1,600 and 2,000 baht

20% off for Bangkok Bank credit cards (Visa and MasterCard)

20% off for True customers

50% for students (show student ID)

Book your tickets at Thai Ticket Major / Tel 02-262-3456 / thaiticketmajor.com

BSO office tel 02 255 6617-18 / bangkoksymphony.org/ Facebook royalbangkoksymphony

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