Tchaikovsky Festival highlights DSO season

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

A three-week Tchaikovsky Festival, a concert presentation of Puccini’s “Tosca” and a yearlong salute to the concerto in America promise a rich and stimulating classical season at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Things kick off Friday with “The Virtuosity of Sarah Chang,” a program featuring the acclaimed violinist, whose last visit to the DSO was scotched by the 2010-2011 strike. Chang will perform Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.

Also on the program this weekend are two short pieces: Ron Nelson’s “Sarabande for Katharinein April” and a humorous piece by the Pulitzer Pprize winner William Bolcom commissioned especially for Leonard Slatkin’s 70th birthday, “Circus Overture,” which premiered this summer at the Tanglewood Festival.

“I told Bill that I wanted a piece under five minutes, with no reference to the song ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” Slatkin says. But Bolcom, who taught composition at the University of Michigan until 2008, got sly revenge by inserting into the “Overture” what an amused Slatikin calls “a minor fragment from Chopin’s Funeral March.”

Capping the program will be Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. “I keep a list of what pieces are good for opening nights,” Slatkin says. “There are about 25, and the Brahms is very nice.”

The yearlong focus on the concerto in America will include works either written by Americans or first performed in this country, such as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (Oct. 23-25), which premiered in New York in 1909. On tap as well is Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (Feb. 14-15), which had its 1875 debut at the Music Hall in Boston.

Other concertos will include Dvorak’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Nov. 7-8), John Corigliano’s Violin Concerto (Nov 28-30), Stenhammar’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (Dec. 12-13), as well as the DSO premiere of “Solstice for Trombone and Orchestra” (Nov. 20-22) by Cindy McTee, Slatkin’s wife, which simply has to be interesting, given the instrument of choice.

Among major symphonic works the orchestra will take on are Copland’s complete “Billy the Kid” (Oct. 23-25), Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (Oct. 31-Nov. 2), Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” (Nov. 28-30), Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (Dec. 4-6) and Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Dec. 12-13).

While it may be difficult to wait, some of the season’s biggest treats will come in the new year, including the three-week Tchaikovsky Festival (Feb. 12-28). Building on the success of last February’s Beethoven Festival, which saw record attendance, Slatkin says he plans an annual Winter Music Festival to fill Orchestra Hall in the year’s dreariest month.

The orchestra will perform all six of Tchaikovsky’s numbered symphonies and all the piano concertos, with Slatkin conducting. As one would naturally expect, the piece even kids love — the “1812 Overture” — will bring the festival to a close on Feb. 28.

The other great thrill in 2015 will be Puccini’s “Tosca,” the season finale May 29 and May 31. “Presenting one opera is something we hope to do every year,” Slatkin says. “We’ve got a terrific cast,” including soprano Patricia Racette, tenor James Valenti and the Grammy Award-winning bass-baritone Eric Owens.

“I think the orchestra will have a lot of fun playing standard opera,” Slatkin adds.

Guest conductors will include Slatkin’s predecessor, DSO music director emeritus Neeme Järvi (Dec. 12-13) for “Zarathustra,” James Gaffigan conducting Beethoven’s Fifth (Oct. 31-Nov. 2), and Jakub Hrusa, a Czech conductor who makes his DSO debut with a program of Dvorak and Sibelius (Nov. 7-8).

Soloists to watch for include violinist Midori performing Mahler’s “Titan” symphony (May 21-23), Russian pianist Olga Kern playing Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” (Feb. 12-13) and French mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet in a program singing Ravel’s “Shéhérazade“ song cycle (April 16-18).

“This will be Isabelle’s American debut,” Slatkin says. “I’ve worked a lot with her in France. She has just the most beautiful voice. I look on her as a potentially big star.”

‘The Virtuosity of Sarah Chang’

10:45 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Max M. Fisher Music Center

3711 Woodward, Detroit

William Bolcom: “Circus Overture,”

Ron Nelson: “Sarabande for Katharine in April”

Barber: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

Brahms: Symphony No. 1

Tickets $15-$100

(313) 576-5111