Tchaikovsky and pianist Joyce Yang help bring the MSO to a roaring season finale

In his life, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a trailblazing Russian composer. The first to make an impression on the international stage, Tchaikovsky was lauded both in Russia and abroad, leading to an appointment from Emperor Alexander III. His pieces, full of the lush rhythms and harmonies of the late Romantic era, continue to resound in concert halls across the world.

So there’s no better way to say goodbye to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for the summer than with a concert comprising some of the master’s greatest hits, including his iconic 1812 Overture. The concert series runs June 24 to 26.

The concert opens with the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera, Eugene Onegin. The robust Polish dance comes from Act III, which takes place during a ball in Moscow for the character Tatiana’s nameday. This popular piece is often extracted from the opera as a standalone symphonic work.

Following the Polonaise is pianist Joyce Yang, who will join the MSO to perform Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor. An internationally renowned pianist, Yang rose to fame in 2005 after being awarded the silver medal at the 12th annual Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Yang, who was 19 at the time, has blossomed since her initial debut. “This concerto is one that I have performed several times,” says Yang. “It’s like coming back to an old friend every time I re-visit it.”

Composed between 1874 and 1875, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto received heavy criticism from pianist Nikolai Rubinstein when it debuted. The pianist reversed these criticisms several years later after Tchaikovsky’s revisions, and Rubinstein eventually became one of Tchaikovsky’s strongest supporters.

Tchaikovsky composed this concerto using a Ukrainian folk theme as the main melody. He had heard the tune when he was visiting an open-air market in Kamenka, Ukraine. That simple theme is fleshed out through Tchaikovsky’s lush harmonies and sets the stage for the rest of the three-movement, 35-minute work.

Fortunately, Yang says, this concerto gets easier each time she performs it. “In the last few years, I’ve averaged a performance of this concerto about once every six months,” says Yang. “The prep time needed to get the piece ready for performance gets shorter each time I perform it.” She says getting to revisit the concerto over and over adds to the fun of performing it. “I discover new aspects of the piece each time, which shapes my performance,” added Yang.

For Yang, the piece also provides an opportunity for a catharsis of emotions. “Even though this piece is fairly standard repertoire, it falls in a rare category in which the pianist can truly let go emotionally and throw oneself into the piece,” says Yang. “That is not always the case in standard piano concertos, as many require a fair amount of structure and some restriction. This piece feels exposed at times, but I think that adds to the overall collaborative experience of the work.”

Yang is excited to return to the MSO. “I’m honored every time I get asked to come back,” she added. “This orchestra is one that I performed with several times in my career. I was fortunate to perform all of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos here. I haven’t done that anywhere else. I love coming back here. Much like this piece, returning to perform with the MSO is like visiting an old friend. It is a special experience that I really enjoy.”

The second half of the concert will continue with other popular Tchaikovsky works, including Symphony No.1 in G minor. The final piece of the concert will be undoubtedly one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous works, the 1812 Overture.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform its “All-Tchaikovsky” concert June 24 to 26 at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $17 to $107. Visit mso.org or call 414-291-7605 to order.