By Denny Patterson
The South Florida Symphony Orchestra (SFSO) is ringing in 2022 with the old and new.
Not only will its Masterworks III concert feature Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, but audiences will witness the world premiere of Princess Yurievskaya by SFSO’s Composer-in-Residence John Gottsch. Charting the passionate love between Catherine Dolgorukova and Tsar Alexander II, the vivid narrative is full of exciting dances, irradiated with evocative orchestral solos.
Gottsch, who has been with the SFSO for three years, took some time to chat more about the piece and his love for classical music with OutClique.
Denny Patterson: Thank you for taking some time to chat with me, John! How excited are you for the premiere performances of Princess Yurievskaya?
John Gottsch: I am very much looking forward to the premiere of Princess Yurievskaya. The premiere was originally scheduled for the 2020 season, but of course, the pandemic derailed all in-person performances and concerts. The South Florida Symphony Orchestra is excited to have in-person concerts again, and we are eager to perform this new work.
DP: Can you tell us more about the piece’s concept and inspiration?
JG: Princess Yurievskaya is a historical figure. She was a long-time mistress and eventually became the wife of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in the mid-19th century. What’s remarkable about the story of the princess and the tsar is the historical record of their raw, passionate love for each other. They shared a mutual devotion that lasted until the tsar’s death by assassination in 1881. Their torrid, white hot correspondence was recently published, and these letters were a primary reassessment and understanding of Alexander II. He was a transformative tsar who, with the encouragement of the princess, instituted important reforms. One early achievement of the tsar was to free the serfs. To this day in Russia, he is known as Alexander the Liberator, and the story of the princess and the tsar, to me, begged for a musical interpretation. Their passion for each other, the joy of the serfs being freed, and the utter tragic death of the tsar.
DP: Why do you like to bring history to life through music?
JG: Often, past historical events can have an important contemporary context. As an example, this past January, Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned by Putin’s security forces, was sentenced to prison. As he was led off to jail, he compared Russia’s glorious past with Alexander The Liberator. He compared him to Russia’s present leadership with, what he called him, Putin the Poisoner. As we see, the princess and the tsar live on.
DP: As the SFSO’s Composer-in-Residence, what do you enjoy the most about working with this institution?
JG: The orchestra has such accomplished musicians, incredible soloists, and of course, it has South Florida’s crown jewel of classical music, Maestra Sebrina María Alfonso, as its musical director. I very much enjoy working and collaborating with the maestrea on these performances and projects.
DP: Right before COVID-19 shut down the world, the SFSO recorded for your debut album, which was finally released in June. The album features Princess Yurievskaya and your symphonic poem Sunset. How has it been received, and do you have any more albums in the works?
JG: The album received a favorable review in Gramophone Magazine by the highly respected critic, Donald Rosenberg. He was particularly complimentary to the orchestra and to the soloists. Huifang Chen plays the violin as the princess and David Calhoun on cello as the tsar. I am putting together another album of my chamber works, and I also have another large orchestral work that tells the history of slaves and Native Americans that live near the Ockalawaha, a mysterious and beautiful river in central Florida. I hope that will someday result in another album.
DP: What are some key elements you incorporate when creating a piece?
JG: As I write, I always keep in mind the musicians who will be playing the music. I have such a tremendous respect for their talents and skills. In a large symphonic work, I am always aware of balancing the different instrumental sections of the orchestra. I make a special effort to showcase individual musicians and their instruments with lyrical solos.
DP: You are also a medical doctor. How did your interest in composing classical music begin?
JG: I have composed pretty much throughout my life, mostly smaller chamber pieces. I also like to listen to classical music as I operate, and I enjoy quizzing the doctor in training operating with me by asking if he or she could identify the classical piece that was playing [laughs]. If the patient is awake during surgery, they will sometimes chime in with the right answer.
DP: What are some goals you would like to achieve as a musical composer?
JG: My goals are those that a very serious composer would have, and that is hoping his or her work will be taken seriously and enjoyed by musicians and audiences alike. Perhaps, some works will survive and be performed and appreciated by future generations.