On Saturday, May 18, Asheville Symphony will join forces with renowned pianist Olga Kern to present this season’s Masterworks finale, Masterworks 7: Titan at Brevard Music Center’s open-air Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium.

The concert will feature two monumental works of the Western repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Titan.

Tchaikovsky’s First — and arguably most famous — Piano Concerto had a rocky start before it became known as one of the most beloved works by the legendary composer.

Tchaikovsky was one of many Russian composers inspired by (and seeking to surpass) Western orchestral music. While some Russian composers sought to create music wildly different than the Germanic tradition, composers like Tchaikovsky and the Rubinstein brothers were determined to beat Western Europeans as their own game.

The elder Rubinstein, Anton, was the originator of this approach, and founded the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, the first of its kind in Russia. The younger Rubinstein, Nikolai, founded the Moscow Conservatory a few years later in 1864. Tchaikovsky was a close friend of Nikolai and was among the first teachers to join him in this new venture. The two men enjoyed a rewarding personal friendship and professional relationship.

That is, until Piano Concerto No. 1 came along.

Postcard collage (1862) of photos of Anton (right) and Nikolai Rubinstein.

Tchaikovsky, proud of his newest composition, played an early draft of the concerto for Nikolai Rubinstein in 1874. The entire event was a complete disaster.

Tchaikovsky ranted about the infamous incident on several occasions to his long time patroness Nadezhda von Meck. He said at first Nikolai — for whom the work was originally dedicated — said nothing at all:

“If you knew how stupid and intolerable is the situation of a man who cooks and sets before a friend a meal, which he proceeds to eat in silence!”

Then the criticism began. “It turned out,” he wrote, “that my concerto was worthless and unplayable… So clumsy, so badly written they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar… Only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away.” The shocking “contemptuous judgement” continued on, outraging the notoriously sensitive Tchaikovsky who left the room without a word.

The sting of disappointing a mentor and friend was bad enough, but to receive such harsh judgement from a leader in the Russian music community was no small thing.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky c. 1875

However, instead of cowing to Rubinstein’s criticism, Tchaikovsky hardened his resolve, removed Nikolai’s name from the dedication, and declared that he would not alter a single note; if Nikolai Rubinstein would not perform the work as originally intended, then he would find someone else.

He ultimately approached Hans von Bülow, a famous German pianist, who took the work with him on a tour of the United States; and so the First Piano Concerto was finally premiered, not in Russia by a Russian pianist, but in Boston by a German.

The premiere was so wildly successful that any concerns about the piece being “worthless” or “badly written” were immediately blown away; the audience adored the work so much that, much to Tchaikovsky’s astonishment, Bülow was obliged to repeat the entire Finale as an encore. The work became an instant hit with audiences around the Western world. It even won over Nikolai Rubinstein himself, who was known to have performed the concerto several times throughout Europe and later begged Tchaikovsky to entrust him with the premiere of the next piano concerto.

What was deemed “unplayable” became a virtuosic marvel, “wrong keys” became powerful harmonic shifts, “vulgar” became iconic melodies, and the “worthless” piece by a “senseless hack” lives on as one of the most iconic and beloved works by a legendary composer.

Olga Kern, pianist, photographed by Chris Lee at Steinway Hall, 12/9/13.

Experience the epic First Piano Concerto yourself featuring the incredible Olga Kern, one of her generation’s great artists and a renowned interpreter of Tchaikovsky’s work.

We’re confident that like the thousands of audience members before you (except Nikolai Rubinstein, it seems), you’ll be immediately swept away into the dramatic and stormy First Piano Concerto, a fitting companion for Mahler’s mighty “Titan.”

Join us for this afternoon performance of our Masterworks Series finale next Saturday in Brevard.

Tickets to Masterworks 7: Titan start at $17, are available now, and can be purchased online or by contacting the Asheville Symphony Box Office at (828) 254-7046 or tickets@ashevillesymphony.org.

Click here to buy online