Kern Plays Rachmaninoff: Program Notes 9/22 - 9/24
Olga Kern performs Rachmaninoff’s demonically delicious variations based on a virtuosic violin piece by Paganini. She is an electrifying Van Cliburn competition-winning pianist with a special gift that captures and captivates audiences the world over. Per The Washington Post: “Call it star quality—music loves Kern the way the camera liked Garbo.”
Tonight's program also includes the Carnival Overture, by Antonin Dvořák, a world premiere of Conrad Tao's I Got A Wiggle That I Just Can't Shake, and the hauntingly beautiful Pines of Rome - Respighi’s vivid love-letter to “The Eternal City.”
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman included.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for Sept 2 2- 24. You'll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
Meet the Guest Artist and Guest Composer here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
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Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
Carnival Overture, Op. 92
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
I N T E R M I S S I O N
Conrad Tao (b. 1994)
I got a wiggle that I just can’t shake
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Pines of Rome, P. 141
I pini di Villa Borghese (The Pines of the Villa Borghese)
Pini presso una catacomba (Pines Near a Catacomb)
I pini del Gianicolo (The Pines of the Janiculum)
I pini della Via Appia (The Pines of the Appian Way)
Image by Jan & Joseph Mulač, Prague, 1901
ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (1840 - 1904)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion, harp, strings Performance time: 10 minutes
Carnival Overture: Background
Nationalist movements in Western classical music owe much to Antonin Dvořák, who believed passionately in composers’ use of indigenous sources for their compositions. In his own music, native Czech sources account for the distinctive, echoing melodies and an ever-present sense of “swing.”
By 1891, when Dvořák began composing the Carnival Overture, his advocacy of this approach was well established; he stipulated that his German music publisher include Czech titles for his compositions, and as an esteemed faculty member of the Prague Conservatory of Music, he taught students how to integrate folk themes into classical forms.
Having recently completed his eighth symphony, Dvořák turned to shorter orchestral forms such as tone poems, overtures and dance suites.
His Carnival Overture formed the centerpiece of a triptych of overtures he composed on themes of nature, life and love: first “In Nature’s Realm”; then the Carnival Overture; and finally his overture to Othello, representing a particularly dark view of love.
He conducted all three overtures as a group in Prague in April of 1892, but since their premiere they have proved highly divisible, and the Carnival Overture has established itself as the most popular and colorful of the three works.
The three overtures were composed between March 1891 and January 1892 in Prague and at Dvořák’s country home, with the Carnival Overture taking shape over the summer; it is saturated with the warmth and energy of long summer days. He completed the Overture on September 12, 1891.
It was during this period of composition that Dvořák accepted Jeanette Thurber’s invitation to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City; he conducted the overtures’ premiere performance in Prague in April 1892, and the second performance at Carnegie Hall the following October during his residency in the U.S.—a period that should have been far more influential in the development of American classical music than it turned out to be.
What to Listen For
For the Prague premiere of the overtures—a concert that turned out to be a kind of farewell performance for the departing Dvořák—he wrote his own program notes.
Regarding the Carnival Overture, he commented that it was intended to evoke “a lonely, contemplative wanderer reaching at twilight a city where a festival is in full swing. On every side is heard the clangor of instruments, mingled with shouts of joy and the unrestrained hilarity of the people giving vent to their feelings in songs and dances.”
Through much of the Overture, but especially in its brilliant opening, its vibrancy and color outweigh the “lonely, contemplative” side of the wanderer’s feelings. The rapid tempos deploy all the sections of the orchestra in whirling, colorful array. Ringing percussive accents convey the impression of celebratory dance.
The Overture is structured in basic sonata plan.
But at the beginning of its development, Dvořák embedded a melancholy passage voiced by the English horn—a melody that represents, in the composer’s words, “a pair of straying lovers.”
This romantic interlude gives the overture a sense of narrative completion when the overture’s carnival atmosphere resumes. An energetic coda concludes the overture.
---Dvořák - Overture Carnival (Last Night of the Proms 2012)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873 - 1943)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion, harp, strings, solo piano Performance time: 22 minutes
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini: Background
Was Rachmaninoff the greatest pianist who ever lived? We will never know. But this unanswerable question is the subject of renewed interest among music historians and keyboard fanciers.
Not so long ago, the thrilling power and sheer dazzle of Rachmaninoff’s piano works, along with their gloriously lush, unrestrained romanticism, began to encounter resistance from some piano purists.
But listeners who cherish great pianism have joined with scholars who have rediscovered lost Rachmaninoff piano rolls, reconsidered his recordings and reevaluated contemporary accounts of his concerts.
Rachmaninov’s hands, author unkown
These reveal not just the pianist of legend with tremendous hands capable of thundering power and speed, but also a poetic, aristocratic interpreter whose subtleties in performance matched the dense layering and structural ingenuity of his compositions.
Which is not to gainsay the appeal of Rachmaninoff’s technical brilliance. In his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini we have a perfect convergence of all the elements of instrumental virtuosity: a melodic subject drawn from a violin caprice by Nicolo Paganini, the violinist who helped invent the very idea of the classical virtuoso superstar; an extraordinary set of 24 variations designed to showcase both compositional and performance skills; a heroic expansion of the original melody’s scale and dynamic range; and special attention to Rachmaninoff’s particular gifts as a pianist—the blazing speed and thundering power that thrilled his audiences.
Rachmaninoff was essentially a figure of the 20th century, the last of the Russian romantics. But his sound was rooted in the 1800s and in the Russian nationalist tradition dating back to Glinka and Tchaikovsky.
He trained as a performer and composer in Moscow and St. Petersburg, focusing on the piano in both disciplines. But all expectations for his future life, including his life in music, were shattered by the Russian revolution of 1917, when Rachmaninoff’s aristocratic family lost their long-held estate with its traditional way of life.
He became a citizen of the United States and died here while touring as a concert pianist, just three days before his 70th birthday.
Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody in 1934, when he had already written four full-length concertos, and despite his frequent bouts of self-doubt, he had every reason to be confident of its success and formal excellence.
Not just a collection of variations on a theme, the Rhapsody is a concertante that is formally constructed, with the 24 variations dividing themselves into three movements in which most of the variations, like Paganini’s original theme, are stated and developed in A minor. The result closely resembles a concerto with traditional fast, slow and faster movements.
Tartini dream old illustration: Famous composer and violinist of the Republic of Venice. Created by J. Boilly after Boilly father, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1840
What to Listen For
Listeners who cannot quite place the formal title of the Rhapsody will immediately recognize Paganini’s familiar main subject, which is the best-known and -loved of his set of 24 violin caprices. It’s built upon a pair of peppery A-minor phrases that sound vaguely demonic, especially on the violin.
The melody starts with an emphatic A, and then, after a quick four-note figure, jumps up to E—then drops an octave to a lower E, repeats the four-note figure starting on E rather than A to arrive back where it began.
This basic progression—start on the tonic, jump up a fifth, drop an octave and jump up a fourth to the tonic again—it often called “circular,” and it could be repeated in an endless loop if a counterbalancing phrase didn’t intervene… eventually resolving it on the same tonic note.
In Rachmaninoff’s treatment of this theme, the first ten variations form an opening movement, with another theme—a quotation of the Dies irae theme of the Latin mass—arising in variations 7, 10, 22 and 24.
Variation 11 consists of a slow, poetic transition that leads us into a slow movement that moves gradually from D minor to D-flat minor, culminating in the most famous musical interlude in the entire Rhapsody, variation 18.
You’ll be lost in the beauties of Rachmaninoff’s lush romanticism when this variation, vernal and ecstatic, soars forth, literally turning the original theme on its head—a direct inversion of Paganini’s original A-minor subject. Understanding its potential popularity, Rachmaninoff is reported to have quipped “this [variation] is for my agent.” It is often played as a stand-alone work.
But the entire composition, as well, has been popular since its premiere in Baltimore in 1934.
When Bruno Walter led the New York Philharmonic in the Rhapsody’s first New York performance, Rachmaninoff was at the keyboard and writer Robert A. Simon commented in The New Yorker that “The Rachmaninoff variations, written with all the composer’s skill, turned out to be the most successful novelty that the Philharmonic Symphony has had since Mr. Toscanini overwhelmed the subscribers with Ravel’s Bolero.”
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
---Denis Matsuev (piano); State Symphony Orchestra of Russia; Conductor: Leonard Slatkin, April 2013
I got a wiggle that I just can’t shake WORLD PREMIERE
CONRAD TAO (B. 1994)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling on piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (third doubling on bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, piano, organ, strings
Performance time: TK
Notes by Conrad Tao
The starting point for I got a wiggle that I just can’t shake was the Pacific Symphony’s year-round home, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The hall is alluring and sinuous, and I found myself attracted to the wavy sense of line that pervades the building. I wanted to write a piece about those wavy lines.
I imagined them colliding gleefully into one another in three-dimensional sonic space before settling down into a more ordered fashion.
The work uses as its primary musical material a series of short, rapid melodic “wiggles” introduced at the outset. In the first section, “I gota wiggle…” these figures are expounded upon and plied with as they ricochet about the orchestra. The structure here mimics a wiggly line, shifting haphazardly between registers.
The second section, “…that I just can’t shake,” is a rumination on the wiggles from before; it is calmer in nature but has an undercurrent of obsessiveness throughout.
Quick gestures from the first section become lyrical passages that never quite resolve; much of the music’s texture is skittish. Layers of sound build on one another and finally unfold into a plush climax (indicated in the score to be played “with love!”) reinforced by the organ, and the piece ends with a contented sigh.
I got a wiggle that I just can’t shake gets its title from the central montage of Vacation!, a 2010 film by Zach Clark.
The Pines of Rome
OTTORINO RESPIGHI (1879 - 1936)
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (third doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 7 trumpets, 4 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion, harp, celesta, piano, organ, strings
Performance time: 23 minutes
The Pines of Rome: Background
Born in 1879, the Bolognese master Ottorino Respighi lived most of his life in the 20th century (he died in 1936). But in the charm and tonal elegance of his music we can hear 19th- and 20th-century aesthetics colored by his infatuation with earlier days: music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, from the 16th through the 18th centuries.
Respighi’s music is graceful, courtly and opulent; it often seems to iridesce with shifting colors. The rhythms are whirling or stately. The sound beguiles us like an antique music box.
Respighi began his career as a violinist and violist, studying first with his father and then at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, but historical and composition studies were also included in his curriculum.
After graduating in 1899, he became principal violist in the orchestra of the Russian Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. There he studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the great masters of orchestral color, whose influence can be heard in all of Respighi’s most popular works.
Returning to Italy, he became first violinist in the Mugellini Quintet, but devoted himself mainly to composing from 1909 onward.
Villa Borghese in Rome, Temple of Esculapio, Pincian Hill, Rome, Italy
What to Listen For
The Pines of Rome is the second of Respighi’s three most popular orchestral suites, which also include The Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals. All three showcase his gift for creating music that seems vividly and specifically visual, a goal sought by many of the baroque composers he so admired.
In the first movement of The Pines, we are treated to a view of the sumptuous Villa Borghese, where rambunctious children are playing and soldiers are marching amid the pines.
Next we are transported to a subterranean catacomb in Campagna, with its eerie vaults and priestly chanting deftly evoked by low orchestral voicing, organ and trombones. In the third movement, the nocturnal feeling is accented by the sound of a nightingale among the pines of Janiculum Hill.
As Respighi’s Roman travelogue progresses, we realize that not only has he transported us through the city of Rome, but through a day as
well: starting with children at play on a sunlit afternoon, through the night, and finally to the Via Appia, where The Pines of Rome ends in the brilliance of a Roman sunrise.
The Pines of Rome
---B.Smetana - The Moldau
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
To continue with tonight's Guest Artist and Guest Composer, please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, please click here.