Tom Strini
This Week at the MSO

Rachmaninoff X 2

By - Oct 13th, 2009 01:23 am
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Rachmaninoff, later in life

Rachmaninoff, later in life

When I was in school, Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was one of those composers that no serious person was supposed to take seriously. He had the gall to persist in Romantic musical language that Tchaikovsky would have understood, long after Serialism had laid claim to the intellectual high ground of modern music.

Thirty years hence, we’re past all that. Rachmaninoff’s staying power is undiminished; it’s the modernist manifestos that have gone away. (Serial music is another matter; it, too, is in welcome revival, but not as the only proper way to compose.)

Edo de Waart has a particular interest in Rachmaninoff and intends to survey a lot of his music over his next several seasons as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, starting this weekend with the Symphony No. 2 and the Piano Concerto No. 3. If de Waart is taking him up, it’s because Rachmaninoff offers more that mere reactionary sentimentality.

Rachmaninoff’s own playing was anything but syrupy. He was not nearly as exaggerated as Vladimir Horowitz, for example. Rachmaninoff preferred a certain tautness of rhythm. The beat never evaporated; his expression rose from an elastic play of interpretive subtlety against the momentum of the meter. In their Personal Reminiscences, music chroniclers A.J. and Katherine Swan, in a 1944 Musical Quarterly, quote great pianist Nicolas Medtner on Rachmaninoff, his contemporary:

Rachmaninoff in1910

Rachmaninoff in1910

“Not all have understood and appreciated the Rachmaninoff rubato and espressive, and yet they are always in an equilibrium with the fundamental rhythm and temp, in contact with the fundamental sense of the music. His rhythm, like his sound, is always included in his music soul — it is, as it were, the beating of his living pulse.”

Rachmaninoff was disciplined in every way a musician can be disciplined. Abram Chasins, a pianist who later became an executive at KUSC, the Los Angeles classical radio station, wrote in his memoirs of an appointment with Rachmaninoff:

“Rachmaninoff was practicing Chopin’s Etude in Thirds, but at such a snail’s pace that it took a while to recognize it because so much time elapsed between each finger stroke. Fascinated, I clocked this remarkable exhibition; 20 seconds per bar was his pace for almost an hour while I waited riveted to the spot, quite unable to ring the bell.”

That sort of thinking extended to his composition. Rachmaninoff did not, as detractors have claimed, merely repeat Tchaikovsky or repackage 19th-century cliches or obsess over extending piano technique. And he did not merely repeat himself. His output represents a slow, steady progress toward Rachmaninoff’s own, idiosyncratic brand of  modernism. (Wait until you hear the startling Symphonic Dances, from 1940, which are surely on de Waart’s agenda.)

Rachmaninoff finished his second symphony in 1907 and his third concerto in 1909. The symphony is big and brawny and ravishing. (The Waukesha Symphony played it very well last year, under Alexander Platt.) The concerto is considered the greatest of his five (if you count the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) for its tight organization and convincing drama.

Pianist Joyce Yang

Pianist Joyce Yang

It is also the most demanding and difficult for the pianist. So Joyce Yang, the MSO’s 23-year-old soloist, isn’t making her Milwaukee debut easy on herself. Yang, a native of Seoul, as a child won several piano competitions in South Korea. She came to New York to study in the pre-college program at The Juilliard School in 1997. In 1999, at age 12, she played Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She was silver medalist at the Cliburn Competition in 2005, and her career took off after her celebrated debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2006. Music director Lorin Maazel was so impressed that he took her on the Philharmonic tour of Asia and a triumphant return to Seoul.

Laurence Tucker, an MSO vice-president and chief program officer, booked Yang on the recommendation of a trusted insider in the business. As it turned out, she was also booked with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, maestro de Waart’s other orchestra.

“Edo worked with her in Hong Kong, and he just flipped,” Tucker said.

Read more about Joyce Yang here.

And here she is playing Schumann’s “Carnaval” in the 2005 Cliburn competition:

Who: Conductor Edo de Waart, pianist Joyce Yang, Milwaukee Symphony

What: Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 3.

When and How Much: Oct. 15-18; Classical Connections concert 7 p.m. Thursday ($15-$45), Classical Subscription Concerts 11:15 a.m. Friday ($24-$77), 8 p.m. Saturday ($25-$93), 2:30 p.m. Sunday ($24-$77)

Where: Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N.Water St.

To Order: Visit the MSO website, call the MSO at 414 291-7605, or call the Marcus Center box office, (414) 273-7206.

Categories: Classical, Culture Desk

0 thoughts on “This Week at the MSO: Rachmaninoff X 2”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great background on the concerts for this weekend… can’t wait to see it Saturday!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I often think reading a concert preview is more valuable for a patron than reading a review. This article makes that point very precisely. You’ve helped place Rachmaninoff, Joyce Yang, and Edo De Waart all in context for this concert, and the links, and the attached video take excellent advantage of the website format.

    I’ve often wondered,have you ever gone back to hear a concert after its premiere? It occurs to me that later performances could be quite different in character from the first public performance. Is there a pattern? Is the first concert generally more dynamic, or do the performers improve with the second — and third — performances?

    Again, this is why the preview, which is applicable to all the performances, is more valuable than the review, which only applies to one.

    I’m glad you’re still publishing, Mr. Strini. I’ve always enjoyed the intelligence and enthusiasm you’ve brought to your writing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Barbara and Peter, for commenting.
    Peter, as a rule, second visits are not in the cards. There just isn’t enough of me to go around. But I was pleased to hear the MSO play Mahler 5 on opening night and again 5 nights later, at the Yo-Yo Ma concert.

    I think they played it a little cleaner and sorted out a few details. But the main difference was that I was ready to hear it differently. The first night, the Fifth roared by my brain with such force that I was overwhelmed. The second time around, I was ready to discern structure and understand more in an intellectual way. The two reviews reflect the difference. So same piece, same conductor, same orchestra, same listener in the same seat in the same hall, but two very different experiences.

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