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Program Notes: December 1, 2012

Piano Concerto No. 2

Sergey Vasilievich Rachmaninoff

(b. Semyonovo, Russia, 1873; d. Beverly Hills, CA, 1943)

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 may be the most popular piano concerto ever written, but its opening tells a troubled tale. Dark chords mist over a repeating pedal tone, tolling like a death knell, growing in murkiness, increasing with ever more forceful attacks and volume, finally breaking free into tempestuous arpeggiated undulations as the orchestra plays its troubled, melancholic theme above. That famous opening appears to tell the terrible tale of Rachmaninoff’s own emergence from an alcoholic depression and writer’s block at the beginning of his brilliant career.

When he was just 19, the gifted Rachmaninoff wrote the piece that would launch his international fame, his Prelude in C# Minor. He had barely started his conservatory studies with the famous Tchaikovsky in Moscow. Beloved by audiences, that Prelude would become something of a bane to Rachmaninoff’s career, dogging his every steps as a concert pianist—the public would never let him finish a recital or concert without an encore of that famous Prelude. Rachmaninoff eventually came to refer to this piece as an almost dreaded “It.”

Soon after composing this Prelude, when all the world was adoring this young composer and awaiting more masterpieces from his emerging genius, Rachmaninoff unveiled his Symphony No. 1 in 1897. It was a terrible disaster. The audience hated it. Rachmaninoff remembered this as the most horrific hour of his life as he hid in a stairwell, hands clamped over his ears. Although today, his First Symphony is considered a great work, in 1897 it felt to Rachmaninoff as if all of his great hopes had been dashed.

His world came crashing down around him, as he was consumed by depression, excessive drinking, followed by almost three years of unremedied writer’s block. True, Rachmaninoff would be subject to melancholia and depression all his life, but this was the worst bout of them all. His family intervened and convinced the young artist to see an acquaintance who specialized in this type of perplexing problem – Dr. Nikolai Dahl of Paris – an internist who had found success in treating alcoholism with hypnosis. Beginning in January of 1900, Rachmaninoff and Dr. Dahl embarked on their journey back to sanity and creativity, by talking music, amending sleep patterns and eating habits, and repeating the hypnotic uplifting mantra: “You will begin your concerto . . . it will be excellent.”

By April the young composer was filling up with musical ideas far surpassing what was needed for a concerto, and a new dawn was breaking in his soul. By late 1900, what grew out of Dahl’s cure were the second and third movements of Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2, and by the spring of 1901 Rachmaninoff had written the extraordinary first movement with its historical pathos, completing the work. Beyond grateful, Rachmaninoff dedicated the piece to Dr. Dahl.

The Second Piano Concerto is yet another work by Rachmaninoff that seems to defy criticism, and so it has been ever since its premiere – so perfectly balanced is its form and pace, so exquisite its themes, so dark and restless and yet so filled with invention and hope. After that bell-tolling introduction by the piano in the first movement, and its subsequent melancholic theme, Rachmaninoff then introduces a new theme, this one the obverse of the first, piqued in utter sensuousness. The first movement ends with a certain violent overbite, however, which makes the second movement all the more enchanting.

The second movement Adagio is strikingly simple and breathtaking. The flute sings a plaintive, rustic melody over bare bones piano arpeggios, creating a mood of far away dreams, of love remembered – which leaves us wandering in a lost reverie as the third movement sneaks in quietly, cleverly.

Within a few bars, Rachmaninoff has launched the last movement into a spirited scherzo march-like movement, full of pianistic and orchestral bravura and splashy effects. The Concerto comes to a perfect close – resolute, assured and brimming with good cheer, which is a wonderfully long way from the tolling torment with which the piece began.

Don Juan, Op. 20

Richard Strauss

(b Munich, 1864; d Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, 1949)

Don Juan is one of the great masterpieces in Western music in its intense energy and sweeping themes. In fact, this youthful piece is filled with some of the best themes Strauss ever composed, and it’s not surprising that from its very premiere in 1889 until now, it has always been a favorite of music lovers. Amazingly, this was essentially Strauss’ first confident foray into the “tone poem” form, composed at the young age of 23, a masterpiece that showed his precocious maturity and his brilliant ear for the possibilities of color in the orchestra.

It is true that the 23-year old Strauss had already composed quite a few works before embarking on this new musical form, and many of them were great works indeed (such as his Serenade in Eb for Winds). However, until then Strauss had been following in the composing footsteps of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Mozart, using their Classically defined forms. Strauss’s primary guide into the musical world had been his father, a professional horn player by trade; his father was disenchanted with the “modern” music of Wagner and Liszt, and he guarded his son from this “Future Music of Germany.” But things changed when the young Strauss met another musician named Alexander Ritter (1833-1896), who was Wagner’s niece’s husband, and who coaxed him into the Lisztian and Wagnerian folds. All of a sudden, it was if the sun had risen anew for Strauss, and suddenly his notion of composing changed dramatically. He discovered the potency of a literary thread, leading to endless ideas and magnificent creativity. Strauss immediately produced two experiments in this genre – Aus Italien (1886) and MacBeth (1888) – but it was with Don Juan that he composed in 1889 where Strauss’ genius broke out.

The tale of Don Juan is an old one, but it was apparently the version written by poet Nicholas Lenau (1802-1851) that inspired Strauss’ musical version. In Lenau’s account, the Don was less a scoundrel than a dreamer-philosopher, searching for the perfect love in the perfect, ideal woman. Along the way, obsessed with this ideal, the Don encounters hundreds of romantic trysts and their aftermaths. At long last, disenchanted by the folly of it all, he allows himself to die in a duel. From Lenau’s poem (1844):

It was a beautiful storm that urged me on; it has spent its rage, and silence now remains. A trance is upon every wish, every hope. Perhaps a thunderbolt from the heights which I condemned, struck fatally at my power of love, and suddenly my world became a desert and darkened. And perhaps not; the fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark.

The musical moments in Strauss’ Don Juan are mesmerizing. The opening, for example, has been called a chorus of “champagne corks popping” and it’s an unabashed whirlwind of force, charm and surging exuberance. Then there follow three love episodes, and there are few themes quite as romantic and lush as the one captured by the oboe solo in the middle. After these romantic interludes, the Don becomes restless to move on to another conquest, and Strauss captures his quest with one of the grandest themes ever penned, throbbing in the horns as they play in breathtaking unison. Finally, the Don becomes disenchanted by these lustful heroics and allows himself to die by the hands of his opponent, captured poignantly by his dying while musical glimpses of his past adventures flit before his ears.

When Strauss finished Don Juan, he moved on to other, equally extraordinary tone poems, such as Til Eulenspiegel’s Lustige Streiche, and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although these too were masterpieces, his first venture in Don Juan seems to capture the bravura and poetic ideals of a great composer in his indomitable youth, and it remains one of the great works of its kind.

An American in Paris (1928)

George Gershwin

(b. Brooklyn, NY, 1898; d. in Hollywood, CA, 1937)

Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, Gershwin grew up in a crowded, small home with three siblings and one piano. Having flourished precociously at the piano, the young Gershwin dropped out of school at 15 to work on Tin Pan Alley, where he was one of dozens of pianists selling songs for music publishers. While he was “plugging” songs for performers at the Alley, he continued his musical studies and composing, dreaming of making it big. By his early 20’s he had found some success with his own works on Broadway, and in 1920, his first hit song, Swanee was being sung by Al Jolson and netted him $10,000 in its first year alone (roughly $126,000 in today’s dollars) . Then came success with shows in London, and at the age of 24, that once poor kid from Brooklyn had made it about as big as he might have ever dreamed. But the truly amazing part of the story was just beginning. With Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Gershwin became world famous. In 1930 his show Girl Crazy was a gigantic success, and to this day, one of its many hit tunes, “I Got Rhythm,” has remained one of the great popular songs in the American songbook. Its lyric “… who could ask for anything more?” could rightly sum up the philosophical place that Gershwin had achieved for himself at the age of 32. The tragedy of his death to a brain tumor in 1937 seems all the more unfair given his talent and joy for life that were so evident in his music.

Almost 10 years before his untimely death, and four years after Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin was at his titanic strengths as a composer, yet he remained the consummate life long student of composition, and was still coming up with innovative masterpieces. Such is An American in Paris of 1928. As a tone poem, it was an ambitious 20 minute work for Gershwin. In addition, this was his first major attempt at orchestrating entirely on his own; Whiteman's staff arranger, Ferde Grofé, had orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue. But there are no slips in his craft – An American in Paris is certainly not shy on those jazzy and infectious tunes, but the orchestration is brilliant. One particularly whimsical touch, of course, is the famous taxi horns at the beginning of the work which Gershwin fetched from a car barn in Paris himself and which bring the bustling city to sonic life. In fact, there’s a host of wonderfully clever compositional devices in this work – examples of beautiful instrument pairings happen all through the work, glowing here, smiling there, frowning next… but what makes An American in Paris such a great piece is how Gershwin spins the impressionistic narrative along, weaving magnificent tunes and musical development between them. George Gershwin intended his tone poem, or rhapsodic ballet, to be only impressionistic glimpses of Paris. He did offer, though, a few hints of a program: “An American is strolling through (Paris) (the introductory Allegretto grazioso, the “promenade theme” which accompanies him from sight to sight). He hurls himself into the traffic chaos of the city (taxi horns); he hears a popular old favorite (“La Sorella” -- played by trombones) in an “establishment;” he has nostalgic thoughts of home in a cafe and gets the “blues” (blues tune in trumpets -- Andante ma con ritmo deciso); then, he is cheered up by a Charleston (Allegro) and once again finds pleasure in the hustle and bustle of Parisian life.”