Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ann Schein in Harrisburg, Part 2: This Week's Master Class & Recital

If you hadn't heard Ann Schein's performance with the Harrisburg Symphony this past weekend – or heard the buzz about it: check this link to read three reviews – you missed an incredible performance and an amazing collaboration between soloist, conductor, orchestra and composer.

Malina & Schein after Chopin
And if you stayed for the “talk-back” after the concerts, you probably heard her talk about the importance of teaching, not only in her own teachers but also in how she teaches her students.

So, here's something to consider: you can hear Ann Schein play some more right here in Harrisburg this coming weekend – 8pm, Satudary night at Whitaker Center – in a program for Market Square Concerts in which she'll be playing more Chopin (his 3rd Sonata) as well as Beethoven (his famous Les Adieux Sonata) and works by Liszt, Debussy and Ravel.

You can also, in a manner of speaking, hear her teach.

On Friday afternoon, she'll be offering a Master Class at Messiah College's new performing arts center in Grantham – it begins at 5:00 but it's free and open to the public. Students from around the mid-state will be playing for Ms. Schein and she'll listen and give advice. It's a chance for the young pianist to have a “mini-lesson” with a master and sometimes you can impart an amazingly significant bit of information in such a short amount of time than can affect how you approach that piece or this technical detail or the way you practice in general. It can be very inspiring and, for these young artists, I'm sure it will be a great memory.

This is an event sponsored by both the Harrisburg Symphony and Market Square Concerts, part of a “mini-residency” with Ann Schein in Harrisburg.

And the common denominator in these two organizations is Peter Sirotin, currently the concertmaster of the orchestra and the artistic director of Market Square Concerts. His wife, Ya-Ting Chang, a pianist who's also executive director of Market Square Concerts, had been a student of Ann Schein's when they were both attending Peabody. Sirotin refers to Ann Schein as an important mentor in his own life, not just as a musician.

Schein, her husband, and Rubinstein
So when Peter and Ya-Ting had the idea of bringing Ms. Schein to Harrisburg for a concert, was there something else you could do? I mean, she's not only a famous teacher and but she's also studied with some of the great pianists of a tradition now nearly forgotten, like Arthur Rubinstein and Mieczysław Munz as well as Dame Myra Hess. (These links will take you to video clips of some of their performances of Chopin and I highly recommend them.)

And if you've heard the Chopin concerto she played, you heard how wonderfully transcendent that tradition can sound, compared to the way a lot of pianists today perform this very intimate music. For a diametrically opposed concept of Chopin, check out this video which is from a video and CD recording that will be seen and heard by more people than have heard of Ann Schein, who will think this is the way classical music (or at least Chopin) should be played.

Let me quote from two articles that appeared last week to promote the symphony's concert, “Schein on Chopin,” which also mention the master class and recital coming up this week:

Ellen Hughes wrote in the Patriot-News
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"She's a musician with equal comfort as a soloist, chamber musician and concerto performer," HSO concertmaster and Market Square Concerts' artistic director Peter Sirotin said of Schein. "It's hard to find a musician who can cover this range."

She's articulate, sophisticated and unpretentious," he continued. "Besides being a great musician, she's one of the nicest human beings I've ever met."

When he and his wife, pianist Ya-Ting Chang, were students at Peabody Conservatory, Shein taught Chang and coached them both in chamber music. Sirotin and Chang, executive director of Market Square Concerts, still consider Schein a mentor, and its through that relationship that this mini-residency came to be.

"She's had a life in music. She brings a richness of experience through the multiple facets of a mature artist." Echoing Malina, Sirotin said, "She continues the great transition from Rubinstein to the present day."

"A half-century of playing this music means that her interpretations are a profoundly moving musical experience. Her timing and use of color create the feeling that the music has just been composed on the spot," he added.

Sirotin strongly urged me, and anyone else for that matter, to attend Schein's master class. "She uses a higher order of thinking to help students solve technical challenges," he said. "It's rare to experience such an intelligent guide. Attending the master class will open doors to music that are not possible to open while attending a concert," he said.

"I love this program," Schein said about her Market Square Concerts recital, when I spoke to her last week. "I've been doing it on and off for several seasons. Each work has a mini-story. I love all of them for reasons that become obvious."
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David Dunkle, in his article for the Carlisle Sentinel, included this personal anecdote:
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Why is Schein suddenly shining her talents on the greater Harrisburg area?

Part of the answer is HSO concertmaster Peter Sirotin, a violinist who nonetheless considers Schein one of his most important musical influences.

“She was one of my mentors at Peabody,” Sirotin said. “She’s very dear to me personally. She’s also one of my favorite musicians.”

Peter Sirotin & Ya-Ting Chang
Sirotin, along with his pianist wife, Ya-Ting Chang — another Peabody graduate and a Schein protege — are co-directors of Market Square Concerts.

And to complete the loop, Sirotin and Chang, along with HSO principal cellist Fiona Thompson, comprise the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, the ensemble-in-residence at Messiah.

“Yes, there is a link there,” Schein said of her friendship with Sirotin and the Taiwan-born Chang. “Ya-Ting was one of the finest pupils I ever had. One day, she told me she had met a young violin student. With her parents back in Taiwan, I was her surrogate mother. Unless I approved, she wouldn’t go out with him.”
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So you see, a teacher can have a big impact on a person – not just in the way they play the music!

The master class is being held in the High Foundation Recital Hall of Messiah College's new performing center. For directions, click here. For a campus map, click here  (the High Center is #5 on the map). The recital hall is toward the back of the building.

The recital on Saturday – at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg at 8pm – will include Ravel's Sonatine, Debussy's L'isle joyeuse, and the Tarantella from Franz Liszt's musical holiday in Italy, Venezia i Napoli. The program opens with Beethoven's Les adieux Sonata and closes with Chopin's 3rd Piano Sonata.

If you've heard the symphony's concert, then you can still hear more great music making from this artist. It's an opportunity we don't often have in our community, something to take advantage of and treasure.

Please note: the Master Class is free to everyone and anyone may attend to observe; for students, the tickets for Saturday's Whitaker Center recital are $5 for college students with ID and FREE for students K-12 (an accompanying parent or relative or a teacher can purchase a ticket for $5 for bringing a K-12 student).

Dick Strawser

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Schein on Chopin: The Reviews Are In

Following Saturday night's performance with Ann Schein, the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina in a concert that included Guillaume Connesson's recent Cosmic Trilogy: Aleph, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 and Frederic Chopin's 2nd Piano Concerto, here are some reviews for you:

From Kari Larsen with the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

From David Dunkle with the Carlisle Sentinel.

From blogger Dick Strawser, a.k.a. me, not-a-critic writing not-a-review, with his thoughts about the Chopin at his blog, Thoughts on a Train.

Check out our Facebook page for a ton of photos taken by marketing director Kim Isenhour, four of which I include here:

 One of the great opportunities for young audience members to meet a member of the orchestra before the concert - in this case, hornist Bill Hughes explains the mysteries of the French Horn.

Hard to tell from a still photograph how fast everyone's playing during Guillaume Connosson's whirlwind of a cosmic dance, "Aleph" from his Cosmic Trilogy which met with whoops and wows when it exploded at the end.

Ann Schein in the midst of a more contemplative moment from Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2.

The concert concluded with a compelling argument to consider Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony as a work deserving better credit than it has received.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony, Part 2: The Man Behind the Music

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony & Stuart Malina perform Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony which you can read about (and hear) in this earlier post; about the other works on this weekend's program, Guillaume Connesson's Cosmic Trilogy: Aleph and the Chopin 2nd Piano Concerto with soloist Ann Schein, check this post. You can also read (and hear) more about Ms. Schein at this post at the Market Square Concerts blog.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, c.1936
“I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is a product of the temperament and so it is Russian music. I never consciously attempt to write Russian music, or any other kind of music. What I try to do when writing down my music is to say simply and directly what is in my heart.”

That is how Sergei Rachmaninoff described himself in 1941 in his last major interview when he was in his late-60s.

But Russia has always been a country caught between two continents – Europe and Asia – both of which have strongly influenced its history and culture.

To American concert-goers, this is perhaps most evident in the two “types” of Russian composers they hear with any regularity: the folk-influenced, often “Oriental” style of the nationalists like Rimsky-Korsakoff and Mussorgsky or the Western symphonic tradition we hear reflected primarily in the symphonies and concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff or their Soviet counterparts, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. 

This post is about Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony, composed between 1935-1936, most of it written during the summers he'd spent between concert-tours at his villa in Switzerland beside Lake Lucerne, a magical place he called Senar, taking its name from his and his wife Natalie's first names and the initial of their last.

It was here he completed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and the popular reaction to this new work gave him the courage to begin a new symphony the following year.

Rachmaninoff was described by no less a Russian composer than Igor Stravinsky as “a six-and-a-half-foot scowl.” And judging from the usual photographs we see of him, who would disagree?

So here is a wonderful video I found courtesy of YouTube which includes “home movies” of the composer among friends and family – some of them were taken in New York City where they lived during the “season” but most of them were filmed at Senar during his summer holiday.

At one point, the narrator says the audio recording was made in 1933, so I'm guessing most of these were shot about the same time – in other words, the summer when Rachmaninoff was working on the Rhapsody about a year or two before he began work on his 3rd Symphony.

The Great Stone Face of Music? Who has ever seen photos of Rachmaninoff laughing – or could imagine him clowning for the camera and playing “Ring-Around-the-Rosey” which his children and grandchild?

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This was a happy time in his life: he was a famous pianist and a composer despite the fact he had composed little since he left his native Russia in 1917. But a lot had happened to him in those intervening 16 years.

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Born into an aristocratic family on April 1, 1873, Rachmaninoff grew up during the Golden Age of the Russian Empire – at least as far as we in the West think of it culturally with the music of Tchaikovsky and the Russian Nationalists of the “Mighty Handful” (a.k.a. The Russian Five) and the novels of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. We imagine nights at the ballet with Swan Lake or the opera with Boris Godunov.

But this was but a small fragment of the Russian World: beyond the palaces and country estates of the landed gentry, it was another situation, entirely.

Rachmaninoff's father, after gambling away the family fortune and their estate, abandoned them and his mother took the boy to St. Petersburg when he was 9 so he could take piano lessons (she had started him herself when he was 4). Her nephew, Alexander Siloti, studied piano with the Rubinstein brothers (Anton was one of the greatest pianists of the day) and later with Franz Liszt. He was also a student and friend of Tchaikovsky's.

Siloti & Tchaikovsky
Siloti recommended bringing his cousin to Moscow to study with his own teacher, one of the finest (and strictest) piano teachers in Russia. It was there he met fellow student Alexander Scriabin and where Tchaikovsky heard the boy play and encouraged his early attempts at composition.

One of the most brilliant pianists at the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff also developed into a potentially significant composer and conductor. He wrote an opera for his graduation piece and a little piano piece called the “Prelude in C-sharp Minor” when he was 19 (whose popularity would dog his entire career).

Naturally, all this went to his head. After playing a piece for Rimsky-Korsakov who liked it well enough but made one small suggestion, he later recalled, “I was silly and stuck on myself in those days. I was 21 – so I shrugged my shoulders and said 'And why?' and never changed a note.” Later he realized how justified Rimsky's comment had been – it was only in later years Rachmaninoff realized Rimsky's true greatness as a composer and teacher and regretted that he never got to study with him.

It was another piece and another Russian composer, Alexander Glazunov, a protege of Rimsky's, that were responsible for the first great crisis in Rachmaninoff's life.

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Remember what I said in my earlier post about the difference a conductor can make in hearing a piece for the first time, how a conductor who plays Beethoven badly is at fault but one who plays a new piece, it's always the composer who gets blamed?

In 1897, a few days before his 24th birthday, Rachmaninoff's new Symphony No. 1 (completed three years earlier) was finally premiered – the orchestra in St. Petersburg was conducted by Alexander Glazunov and it was one of three premieres on the program. The long delay in getting it performed was one thing but the other problem was that Glazunov clearly did not understand or even care for the music he was conducting.

During the rehearsal, Rimsky said to Rachmaninoff, "Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable."

Rimsky-Korsakoff & Glazunov
Glazunov was never a good conductor. Even Rimsky, his mentor, wrote in his memoirs about Glazunov's conducting. "Slow by nature, maladroit and clumsy of movement, the maestro, speaking slowly and in a low voice, manifestly displayed little ability either for conducting rehearsals or for swaying the orchestra during concert performances."

The performance was one of the great debacles of music history – but not in the way The Rite of Spring caused a scandal. Another conductor attending that performance wrote,

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"The Symphony was insufficiently rehearsed, the orchestra was ragged, basic stability in tempos was lacking, many errors in the orchestral parts were uncorrected; but the chief thing that ruined the work was the lifeless, superficial, bland performance, with no flashes of animation, enthusiasm or brilliance of orchestral sound."
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Afterward, there were reports that Glazunov was drunk at the time. Granted, he had a drinking problem (a young Shostakovich, studying with him in later years, wrote that he kept a flask in his desk with a tube that ran up under his coat to his lapel so he could drink during lessons without being seen), but judging from these other reports, it's quite possible he didn't need to be drunk to have lost control of the performance if he had trouble understanding it and lacked any sympathy for it.

Rachmaninoff ran from the hall.

Cesar Cui, one of the “Mighty Handful” and the leading critic in Moscow, wrote, “If there were a conservatory in Hell, Rachmaninoff would get first prize for this symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us.”

Well, with wrong notes left uncorrected in the parts and a lack-luster interpretation much less a conductor who didn't have the skill to keep a difficult piece under control, drunk or not, the public didn't have a chance to hear what the composer intended.

He supposedly destroyed the score and it was never performed again during his lifetime. Only after his death did someone find the set of parts from that performance and reconstruct the score to give it a second performance in 1945, two years after Rachmaninoff's death.

There is a bitter-sweet moment in what became Rachmaninoff's last work, his Symphonic Dances written in 1941, when he quotes a theme from his 1st Symphony: who would recognize it? It was obviously a very personal reflection not intended for public recognition.

Rachmaninoff, Summer 1897
ere is much written about Rachmaninoff's reaction to this experience – how he went into such a depression he needed a psychoanalyst to bring him out of it so he could compose he next piece, his 2nd Piano Concerto which became (and remains) perhaps his most popular piece (after that C-sharp Minor Prelude).

But there's more to it than that: Rachmaninoff wrote to a friend of his a month later that the bad performance was one thing and the savaging in the press another, but what really bothered him, he said, was that...

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“...I am deeply distressed and heavily depressed by the fact that my Symphony, though I loved it very much and love it now, did not please me at all after its first rehearsal.... Either, like some composers, I am unduly partial to this composition, or this composition was poorly performed. And this is what really happened. I am amazed—how can a man with the high talent of Glazunov conduct so badly? I speak not merely of his conducting technique (there's no use asking this of him), but of his musicianship. He feels nothing when he conducts—as if he understands nothing!... So I assume that the performance may have been the cause of the failure (I do not assert—I assume). If the public were familiar with the symphony, they would blame the conductor (I continue to "assume"), but when a composition is both unknown and badly performed, the public is inclined to blame the composer. ...In any case I will not reject this Symphony, and after leaving it alone for six months, I'll look at it, perhaps correct it, and perhaps publish it, but perhaps by then my partiality for it will have passed. Then I'll tear it up.”
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But he did not take it up again and, in fact, did not “tear it up,” either. But it was another three-and-a-half years until he began work on the 2nd Piano Concerto which he premiered with his cousin Siloti conducting in 1901. Whatever his psychoanalyst Nikolai Dahl did for him in those sessions (and he dedicated the concerto to him), he at least restored the young man's self-confidence he could get over his writer's block.

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So by now, Rachmaninoff was on the road to recovery and soon became not only an acclaimed pianist and composer but also a conductor. Eventually, he found his busy schedule detracting from the time he needed to compose, so he packed his family off to Dresden, Germany, mostly to avoid the political unrest happening in Russia – this was following the failed 1905 Revolution and the Russo-Japanese War. Aside from summer holidays spent at his in-laws' country estate, Ivanovka, he spent three years in Dresden and composed his 2nd Symphony.

with his daughter (b.1907)
Writing a symphony is different than writing a concerto or a tone poem or short piano pieces. There's more than just writing well for the orchestra: there's also the structural challenge of maintaining a long-form piece and with the memory of his 1st Symphony's premiere nine years earlier still very much in his mind, he wasn't sure he could write a symphony.

He finished it the following year (1907) and premiered it in St. Petersburg but he conducted it himself (one lesson learned). It's popular – and critical – success, despite concern for its hour-long length, no doubt helped him feel more secure about his creativity. He thought maybe he would revise that 1st Symphony, see what he could make of it, but he put it aside. Again.

Still, it was another 29 years till he composed his next symphony – but much happened in between.

As I mentioned, Rachmaninoff was a member of the landed aristocracy – in 1910, he and his wife inherited Ivanovka – if not a titled aristocrat. The political situation in Russia had been on the downward slope for a long time and when the first revolution happened in 1917, Rachmaninoff, never very politically involved, thought he could wait it out.

In the midst of World War I, the tsar had been overthrown and a provisional government showed promise. Concertizing in Europe was impossible and now things were dubious at home.

It was the second revolution in 1917 that changed everything.

The Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government and set up the communist regime that would soon become the Soviet Union.

At Ivanovka, the peasants forced Rachmaninoff to abandon his home, often running around drunk with flaming torches, stealing the cattle and “breaking into the stores” (according to one of the villagers). After the Rachmaninoffs left, they looted the house and burned it down.

Here is a Russian video montage of photographs of Ivanovka as it was during Rachmaninoff's life there and as it is today, converted into a museum:
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The music is from his 1st Piano Concerto, his Op.1, most of it composed there.
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In 1931, Rachmaninoff would recall it as a place with “no special wonders – no mountains, ravines or ocean views. It was on the steppes [northeast of modern-day Ukraine] and instead of the boundless ocean there were endless fields of wheat and rye stretching to the horizon.”

“The Russians,” he said in another interview in America, “feel a stronger tie to the soil than any other nationality. It comes from an instinctive inclination towards quietude, tranquility, admiration of nature, and perhaps a quest for solitude. It seems to me that every Russian is something of a hermit.”

Whether it's true stereotypically of Russians then or now, it was certainly true of Rachmaninoff.

When a request came to him for some concerts in Scandinavia, Rachmaninoff jumped at the chance. On December 22nd, 1917, he left Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) for Finland, crossing the border in a snowstorm in an open sleigh. Careful not to provoke the authorities by appearing to escape, he left with only what one might normally travel with, leaving behind practically everything but a few notebooks and a couple scores. All his music not to mention his money and property were left behind.

Among the manuscripts left in the Petersburg apartment was the Symphony No. 1. While others were removed by family members and placed with his publisher, the symphony disappeared. Its whereabouts is still unknown.

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Like many Russians fleeing the collapse of the Russian Empire, Rachmaninoff found himself without a country – their money was worthless, they didn't even have legal passports and those issued by the League of Nations created bureaucratic hurdles that made another emigree, Igor Stravinsky, who found himself stranded in Switzerland at the time, feel like a third-class citizen.

With this loss of national identity and the death of the culture that had nourished him, Rachmaninoff also felt he had lost his soul.

First, he had to concentrate on making money and the best way to do that was perform, so he stopped composing and conducting. Without the nourishment of that Russian soil, he lost all interest in composing, anyway, and from 1917 on, there are few compositions compared to the promise his earlier works had implied.

Settling eventually in New York City, the family tried to maintain whatever ties it could to the Old Country. Like the emigree communities that flourished (more or less) in Paris and Berlin, the Rachmaninoffs maintained an apartment furnished in the old Russian style, hired Russian servants, spoke only Russian at home, and socialized mostly with Russian friends.

Still, nothing seemed to work.

In 1926, he wrote a 4th Piano Concerto but it failed to please and he revised it in 1941 but still without any luck. A setting of Three Russian Songs allowed him to explore a more directly nostalgic route but this choral work never caught on, either.

Aside from ten paraphrases and transcriptions – ranging from The Star-Spangled Banner in 1918 to some works by his frequent collaborator Fritz Kreisler to excerpts from Bach's E Major Partita for Solo Violin (which received its first performance here in the Forum in Harrisburg PA on a recital tour in 1934) – mostly intended as encores, he wrote only six published works over the next 24 years.

It was the sudden appearance of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 that seemed to ignite renewed creative juices. He had by now moved into the villa overlooking Lake Lucerne that would serve as his summer home, the Villa Senar.

It was designed and landscaped to remind him of the family estate, Ivanovka, back in Russia, complete with its great avenue under rows of birch trees, so quintessentially Russian. He spent every summer from 1932 there until the outbreak of yet another war in 1939: World War II would keep him from returning to Europe before he died at his home in Beverly Hills, California, in 1943.

So it was at Senar, buoyed by the confidence he felt after the Rhapsody, that he began not another piano concerto – which would have made sense for a concertizing pianist – but another symphony in 1935.

He completed his 3rd Symphony – you can read more about the piece itself and hear two different performances of it on that earlier post, here – that next summer and scheduled it to be premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra with whom he'd had a long and happy relationship, with Leopold Stokowski conducting.

Unlike the reception given the Rhapsody, the audience was cool to the new symphony and the critics even cooler. Though Rachmaninoff was still convinced of the piece's worth, when he was asked to conduct and record with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1939, he chose the 3rd Symphony.

That recording is available on an RCA CD. Here is the first movement:

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Given the lukewarm reception to his 3rd Symphony and especially the earlier 4th Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff wrote one more work, his Symphonic Dances which, after it also met with a poor response, he wrote nothing else during his final years.

By this time, he was pushing 70 and was not in the best of health, though he was still busy performing on a regular basis, living now in Beverly Hills, California, where other emigrees would settle – like the German novelist Thomas Mann and composers as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

Diagnosed with an advanced melanoma in 1942 (though he was not told), he and his wife became American citizens on February 1st, 1943. On the 17th, he was giving a recital in Knoxville TN and became ill, returning home instead of continuing the tour. He died five weeks later, four days before his 70th birthday.

Rachmaninoff suffered from being too nostalgic for a long-gone world and incapable of moving with the times, even though harmonically and texturally there are things happening in his 3rd Symphony that are clearly a response to newer ideas. But as often happened, he fell between both worlds – too modern for those who wanted another 2nd Piano Concerto and too conservative for those expected something more modern.

His mood as a rootless emigree at odds with the world and especially its new art and music, can be summed up in a comment made in a 1939 interview that he would not allow to be published during his lifetime:

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“I felt like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me... I always feel that my own music and my reactions to all music remain spiritually the same, unendingly obedient in trying to create beauty... The new kind of music seems to come not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt – they mediate, protest, analyse, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.”
(from an interview with Leonard Liebling in The Musical Courier quoted in Orlando Figes's Natasha's Dance.)
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with grandson (b.1933)
While such comments were leveled at Brahms in earlier times, it was certainly a complaint leveled by many others at composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

Brahms struggled against such criticism especially in his later years (destroying another symphony and at least one more violin concerto he had begun, perhaps even finished) and Rossini and Sibelius were just two composers who, having difficulty adapting to the new musical styles that were becoming accepted if not popular in their days, gave up composing entirely.

But then, they didn't have to deal with losing their country. For Rachmaninoff, that was always a major issue with his being a creative artist. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong point in time.

Perhaps when listening to this symphony, then, we should remember the laughing Rachmaninoff, playing “Ring-Around-the-Rosey” with his grandchild, living and writing in his idyllic if carefully reconstructed atmosphere at Senar remembering not only Ivanovka but the very air of Imperial Russia that was once the breath of life.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Rachmaninoff and his Third Symphony: Part 1

Back in the mid1970s, when I was teaching a college course in Russian Music, I had the chance to talk to a visiting Soviet “social anthropologist” who was visiting the University of Connecticut and so I asked her “why does Russian music sound so sad?”

Thinking for a few seconds, she said “I don't really know: perhaps the long winters?”

Now that it will officially be Spring by this weekend's Masterworks Concert - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - we, having survived an undeniably long, intense winter, may better understand the mood behind that six-and-a-half-foot scowl called Sergei Rachmaninoff as Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in his Symphony No. 3 in A Minor.

It's not as well known or as frequently programmed as his 2nd Symphony and while the 2nd & 3rd Piano Concertos and the ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini are staples of the repertoire, his symphonies appear less often.

Perhaps the most recognizable hallmarks of Rachmaninoff's style are his lush harmonies and gorgeous melodies, especially in the more lyrical passages. There's a reason most of Hollywood's composers imitated Rachmaninoff's style with its direct emotional appeal back in the day. And while themes from his 2nd Piano Concerto went on to become popular songs in their own right (“Full Moon and Empty Arms,” for one), why does the 3rd Symphony get the short end of the stick?

Written in the mid-1930s and given its world premiere in Philadelphia, it opens with a very strange little passage that quickly erupts into the dynamic main theme. The lyrical second theme may not match the star quality of the 2nd Piano Concerto's or the famous 18th Variation from the Rhapsody (very little could), but it certainly has a lot to offer with its song-like quality.

The symphony is in three movements rather than the traditional four. The middle movement combines both the slow movement and the scherzo into 12 minutes where the 2nd Symphony's two middle movements spanned about 25 minutes. On the other hand, “voluptuous” is a word we might apply to a lot of Rachmaninoff's slow movements, but perhaps not to this one – or at least not voluptuous enough.

The finale is full of that typical vigor we associate with Rachmaninoff's dramatic music and it's certainly an exciting ending.

Now, I've heard works that haven't fared well with the public and sometimes can understand that. Then along comes a performance that stands the others on end and I think, “wow, this is an entirely different piece.”

As a case in point, I found myself disliking a lot of Shostakovich's last three symphonies which, in this country, we normally first heard in recordings by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I'm not sure why but they just didn't do anything for me. The 15th was something I found boring and, with its quotes from Rossini's “William Tell” Overture, silly.

Then I listened to Maxim Shostakovich's recording of his father's last symphony and a lot of things suddenly grabbed me and I found it riveting (even if still full of questions but not ones I was tempted to dismiss as “bad composing”).

Not to put down Ormandy – who, without doubt, was an incredible musician – but I just didn't find his performances compelling (at least of these Shostakovich symphonies).

Rachmaninoff's 3rd is another work I'd never gotten into. I don't remember whose recording I'd first heard of it, but I decided I didn't like the piece and more or less ignored it, thinking in this case the public's lack of interest was justified.

Then a few years ago, I heard Stuart Malina conduct it with the Harrisburg Symphony and I went to listen to a couple other recordings, including one the composer himself made in 1939 with the same Philadelphia Orchestra that had premiered the work to little acclaim.

I changed my mind.

And Stuart convinced me this is a much better piece than I'd ever thought it was. It's the difference a committed performer can make in a piece.

Usually when something new (and therefore unfamiliar) fails, it's blamed on the composer. If Beethoven's 5th fails, it's the conductor's fault.

So, first, here's a recording by Russian-born pianist-turned-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, one of the more acclaimed performances available on YouTube:
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1st Movement: Largo – Allegro moderato

2nd Movement: Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro vivace

3rd Movement: Allegro

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Normally, I like to find actual live concert performances so you can watch the orchestra as well as listen, but I couldn't find a satisfactory interpretation and recording that served both purposes.

For those who read music and like to follow along with the score, here's a recording by Gennady Rozhdestvensky with the USSR Ministry of Culture Orchestra that uses a two-piano reduced score:
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One of the things that listeners find confusing is that odd opening. Lots of symphonies begin with slow introductions – and Tchaikovsky, for one, often used an introductory “motif” that recurred throughout the symphony either outright or altered in various ways, helping to tie the piece together: the fanfare representing “Fate” that opens his 4th; the march in the 5th (a full-blown theme); the bassoon solo in the Pathétique.

Rachmaninoff's idea which sounds more like a single note with a note or two above or below it doesn't sound very promising. And it certainly doesn't help establish any sense of it being in “A Minor.” So what is it doing there?

For some reason, Rachmaninoff, though Russian and Orthodox by birth, had a fascination – or perhaps “obsession” is the better word – with the Dies irae chant from the Roman Catholic liturgy for the dead: you really only need the first ten seconds.
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While composers like Franz Liszt might base a whole set of variations on the theme, complete with rather horrifying effects for the mid-19th Century, Rachmaninoff often embedded it into his works even when there was no real programmatic reason for it. But because of its association with the Day of Wrath and the Final Judgment, it automatically thrusts all of that cultural baggage into the forefront.

Even writing a theme that merely suggests it was enough to make people notice: “Oh, he's using the Dies irae there...” Berlioz used it outright in his Symphonie fantastique during the Witches Sabbath to its obvious affect, but Brahms opened his E-flat Minor Intermezzo with something that sounded like it – did he mean to suggest this infamous “dance of death” or is it just a coincidence?

Now, obviously, in something like Rachmaninoff's tone poem The Isle of the Dead, it makes sense, but he also quotes it in the middle of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – because the legend goes that Paganini sold his soul to the devil?

There are at least 17 different pieces Rachmaninoff composed – and he did not compose a great deal of music – that either quote or suggest the Dies irae.

So, go back and listen (or look at) that opening motive again: notice how it revolves around that single note very much like the Gregorian chant? It's even presented as a single line in an odd orchestration that would make most listeners sit up and wonder “what's playing that?”

Now, how does this end up in the rest of the symphony?

For theory nerds, I could point out how A Minor with a B-flat in it is not only not your typical A Minor, you could also look throughout the symphony and hear how that half-step relation affects the harmony and makes the sense of tonality more fluid.

Listen to the conclusion of the 1st movement (the motive is in the bass, under an A Major chord) and again the end of the 2nd movement (again in the bass, but under a C-sharp Major chord). There is also a reminiscence of it in the opening of the 2nd movement, as well.

Then there are places where that opening motive is contained within a passage's harmony – not as melody – undergoing numerous transformations.

But then listen to the very ending of the symphony – the last two measures – some 40 minutes after you first heard this odd little, vague and unassuming motive (in the Ashkenazy clip #3, at 12:09; at 36:08 in the one with the score) has become a very dramatic conclusion.

And while the work is certainly tonal in an age when music had begun exploring atonality and serialism which "destroyed" that familiar sense listeners had with tonality, he often substitutes an E-flat major-ish chord (with a B-flat in it) for the expected E Major dominant chord of the standard V-I Cadence - as he does at the very end. And since the opening motive is built on A-G-A-B-flat-A, using the G-natural instead of the usual G-sharp of the A Major Scale weakens the traditional cadential drive even further.

Bonus points for music nerds: the relationship between E-flat and A is the dreaded tritone, an interval known since the medieval era as "The Devil in Music." Hmmm...

In one sense, Rachmaninoff's style, here, may sound different from, say, Beethoven or Brahms to us, but not that much, compared to Schoenberg or Stravinsky. Yet this was one of the problems audiences in the 1930s had with this new symphony: too modern for those who missed their traditional tonality (especially those who enjoyed wallowing in his rich harmonies and lush textures of his earlier piano concertos and the 2nd Symphony) but too conservative for those who wanted something more modern.

In this next post, we'll explore the time in Rachmaninoff's life when he composed his Third Symphony and its impact on his life as a creative artist.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, March 17, 2014

Schein on Chopin, Part 1: A Cosmic Bang and Shimmering Chopin

For those of you glad to see the back of this winter (and those who aren't), this weekend's concerts may have nothing to do with spring, but it will certainly help put a spring back in your step without having to worry (we hope) about more ice, snow or the return of the Dreaded Polar Vortex.

Spring is a time of infinite renewal (which reminds me that “subscription renewal time” is here, as well, if you haven't already gotten your information in the mail!)

And speaking of time, the first piece on this weekend's program takes us back to the very beginning with the opening of Guillaume Connesson's Cosmic Trilogy.

Then, a timeless classic with Chopin's F Minor Piano Concerto played by Ann Schein, one of the great Chopin interpreters today.

And to conclude, a less-well-known symphony by a much-loved composer whose style influenced a generation of Hollywood composers (for better or worse). The program concludes with Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 which you can read about, here.

The Harrisburg Symphony's concerts, conducted by Stuart Malina, are this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Arrive an hour early for a pre-concert talk with Truman Bullard before each performance.

Incidentally, this is also the concert where we request the audience members bring in non-perishable food items to donate to the “Orchestras Feeding America” drive, distributed locally through the Channels Food Rescue. You can leave any donation in the lobby or with the ushers when you come in. And thanks in advance!

In this post, some videos to acquaint you with the music you'll hear on the first half of this program.

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Guillaume Connesson may not be a name you're familiar with. Frankly, when I saw this season's repertoire list last year, I had to ask “who's this?”

Stuart was very enthusiastic – enough of an endorsement for me – in fact, here's a clip from the Pre-Season Preview recorded last September at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in which he talks about the entire program:
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What to expect from a composer who's name you don't know and who's still alive? Well, for different people, that could mean any number of possibilities, but I found a clip of this “Aleph” movement from his Cosmic Trilogy so you can judge for yourself:
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Jennifer Higdon, whose Percussion Concerto returns to the Forum with Chris Rose in May, was at one time a composer whose name I didn't know. She was having a new work premiered by no less than the Philadelphia Orchestra. So I did some googling and found, for instance, a critic who described her musical style as “Bartók on Speed.”

Now, I'm not sure about the Bartók part of that equation, but her music certainly has a lot of energy and drive.

For what it's worth, if you're familiar with Ms. Higdon's music by now – the symphony has performed “Bright Blue Music” and the Percussion Concerto already in past seasons – I might describe Connesson's music as “Higdon with a French Accent” and I'm not even sure it's necessarily French. They both have similar styles and vocabularies and in the sense that comparing two creative artists is of any help at all to the unfamiliar listener, it is only one more example of comparing Herr von Äpfel with Mlle l'Orange.

Guillaume Connesson
As Stuart explains it, “Aleph” is the first part of a trilogy where the other movements are “Une lueur dans l'âge sombre” (A Glimmer in a Dark Age) and “Supernova.” Curiously, they were written in reverse order, the last movement in 1997, the slow middle movement in 2005 and Aleph in 2007.

In fact, I was surprised to find out how much music he's written (check out his website's catalogue, here.)  He will turn 44 in May.

There's a flute concerto (Pour sortir au jour) that was given its world premiere with Charles Dutoit and the Chicago Symphony earlier this month and was very well received

The entire Cosmic Trilogy has been recorded on the Chandos label.

When I mentioned that Connessons' "day job" was Professor of Orchestration at a conservatory, a friend asked "Paris?" That is, the major music school in France. No, actually - the Conservatoire National d'Aubervilliers-la Courneuve which is located in what is called an "interior suburb" of Paris. But given the fact he's only in his mid-40s, chances are good he may move on to The Big School if he wants to.

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Ann Schein will perform the 2nd Piano Concerto of Chopin on this program. Just as you may not be familiar with Connesson's name, it's possible you're not aware that Ann Schein is not just one of the great Chopin interpreters of the day, but also a highly respected teacher who's studied with some great names in what we might now call “the old tradition,” the great days of Rubinstein and Horowitz.

You can read more about Ms. Schein and her visit to Harrisburg in Ellen Hughes' article in the Patriot-News here and in David Dunkle's article for the Carlisle Sentinel here, which will also include a recital next week (the 29th) with Market Square Concerts at Whitaker Center (also playing some Chopin – his 3rd Sonata) as well as a masterclass that will be held at Messiah College's new arts center on Friday the 28th at 5pm.

In this post on the Market Square Concerts blog, you can hear several more performances by our soloist and find out more about her life as a performer and a teacher.

Ann Schein started making her first recordings when she was 18 – including the Chopin 2nd Concerto. Here's the 1st Movement from that recording, transferred from an LP into this “audio clip” via YouTube:

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That was released in 1960! Now, I'm going to post other clips shortly about her performances, but I want to include this excerpt from a 2012 recital at Aspen, a Chopin Nocturne:

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That should give you an idea what to expect with our soloist!

Now, she often talks about the great pianists who inspired (and taught) her, especially Arthur Rubinstein, which essentially makes her a link with this “golden age” of piano playing. She wishes we could still go hear these artists perform today rather than just listen to their recordings.

I had the experience of attending a Rubinstein recital when I was in grad school in 1972 or so, an all-Chopin performance that opened with etudes and ended with the 3rd Piano Sonata – oh, and then an encore, a little piece by Villa-Lobos, Polichinelle (listen here from 3:08-4:22).  A friend who was backstage said Rubinstein was nervous and they had to aim him toward the piano because, nearly blind, he couldn't see the piano for the stage lighting until he was nearly on top of it. He was 85 at the time.

So for that reason, even though it's probably not his best performance ever (he's been playing this concerto since he was a child), I chose this video made in 1975 with André Previn when Rubinstein was 88 (as if one needs to be reminded that long careers are possible and not every soloist has to be under 30).

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Keep in mind, speaking of the continuity of traditions and the longevity of careers, Rubinstein, a child prodigy, played at the age of 4 for Joseph Joachim, the violinist for whom Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto.

Ann Schein studied with Arthur Rubinstein.

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Frederic Chopin is a name few music lovers need to be introduced to. Technically, he is not a “French” composer despite his name or the fact he spent most of his life centered in Paris. He was born in Poland (and I've been told that, there, his name is pronounced “CHAW-p'n”) and his father was a Frenchman who emigrated to Poland in 1787 as a teenager.

A budding pianist, Frederic, himself a teenager at the time, was considering settling in Vienna but disliked the atmosphere of the Imperial City. He returned to Warsaw where he premiered his F Minor Piano Concerto. Then, two years later, settled in Paris. He never returned to Poland.

Though he's best known for many solo piano pieces – from Etudes to Nocturnes to Mazurkas and Polonaises – Chopin composed only two piano concertos and both of those basically by the time he was 20. It's also a bit confusing that the F Minor Concerto was also the first to be written – probably in 1829. Accounts vary: some say it was premiered in December 1829, others March 1830 which may be the difference between revisions or, more likely, a private performance versus a public concert.

Regardless, it wasn't published until 1836, by which time he had already completed the concerto in E Minor, premiered in October of 1830 and published in 1833.

Not that it makes any difference, but it's interesting to note that the composer was 20 when he finished writing concertos. His initial goal may have been to be a concert pianist – many of his critics complained of his “small sound” which didn't project well in larger concert halls – but he eventually focused almost entirely on music for solo piano with the occasional songs or chamber pieces. One of his last works was a cello sonata completed three years before his death at the age of 39.

He did not perform in public often but they were usually “events” when he did. A year before his death, he traveled and performed in England and Scotland. When he died – his local fame dwindling along with the number of his students – mourners came from London, Berlin, Vienna and Warsaw for the funeral.

While there are many portraits of him – and a famous photograph taken during his last year – it's best to think of this painting of an evening in the palace of Prince Radziwill in Warsaw, when Chopin, then 19 (around the time he wrote this concerto), performed for a musical salon.

You can read this post about Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 which will conclude this weekend's Masterworks Concert. This final post examines Rachmaninoff's life, the man behind the music.

- Dick Strawser