For most of my career I have avoided cycles. It has been season after season of as much variety as possible in my repertoire choices. But this past year has been quite different.
There was the Beethoven Symphony Cycle in Detroit as well as the four Ives Symphonies. In Lyon we have been inundated with Ravel. And to close out the season, there was a complete grouping of all the Rachmaninov works for piano and orchestra.
It was not intentional. All these projects seemed like the right thing to do. I found myself much more interested in certain totalitarian presentations. And it was also a valuable lesson in audience building.
Rachmaninov has long been an active part of my concerts. Several years ago I recorded the piano/orchestra works with Abbey Simon. These were done over a two-year period and I had never done them in a concentrated time frame.
Olga Kern was the soloist this time around. When we first planned the cycle, it was with the idea that we would record them, not only for audio but for video as well. All looked good for this and then we learned that the orchestra would be displaced from the Auditorium at exactly the time when we would present the pieces.
Even with today’s technological advances it is simply not a good idea to do recordings in a poor acoustical facility. But we still needed to finish the season with a bang and this project was as good as any. Olga had done it before but this was my first time with all five pieces together.
The first decision was more complicated than I could imagine: how to place them in each concert. Olga had done them before in a couple different ways. Sometimes they were spaced out over three concerts and sometimes in two. Since I also wanted to showcase the orchestra, we decided on three evenings.
Not only that, but this allowed us to present the works in chronological order, thereby giving everyone an opportunity to see how the composer developed over his compositional life. What I had learned earlier in the year is that some composers evolve a lot and some do not change all that much. With Beethoven the changes are striking but there still is a remnant of his earlier music in the later compositions. With Ives, this evolution is much more dramatic. His final symphony bears little resemblance to his first essay in the form.
Rachmaninov was perhaps one of the least radical of any composer when it came to his own stylistic changes. His personality is evident from the earliest pieces right through to his final compositions. The sheer command of the keyboard is evident right away and as he grew, his harmonic language shifted to a slightly more complicated system. But his melodic voice and even his rhythmic elements remained more or less the same.
The first program contained the first two concerti, with the Caprice Bohemian played as the opener. Surprisingly, the hugely popular 2nd Concerto was the one that Olga and I had never performed together. Her approach was big but with not much variation in tempi, allowing the structure of the piece to come through clearly.
The first concerto exists in two versions. Olga does the later edition and she makes a strong case for this piece as if it were equal to the next two in the cycle. It still surprises me to see Opus 1 written at the top of the first page. Not only is Rachmaninov’s musical style well formed but his orchestration is already first class and distinctive.
A full house greeted this concert but we decided that two concerti were enough and so Olga did not play an encore. However, she did bring one dress each for all of the pieces. When she emerged in a striking red gown for the 2nd Concerto, there was a sustained gasp from the audience and everyone was anticipating what she would wear for the next concert.
The 3rd Concerto stood by itself on the second half. Prior to that we played the lovely Vocalise and then the great Symphonic Dances. It never fails to amaze me and I love every bar of this work. It is a challenge for any orchestra and the ONL really got into it, delivering a truly exciting rendition.
Having recently performed the 3rd Concerto at the Van Cliburn Competition, I was looking forward to a veteran rendition. Olga and I have performed this finger breaker together several times. Even she was a little concerned that I might not remember the special things that she does regarding dynamics and tempi. No fear.
This time around she tore into the work with blazing intensity and showed poetry where needed. The audience exploded and Olga gave them the G-sharp minor Prelude as an encore.
By now it was becoming clear that the piano itself was struggling. It would not stay in tune and a couple of the strings actually had broken. The overly dry acoustic of the Bourse did not help matters. We are all looking forward to getting back to the Auditorium in October.
The final program brought the last two piano-orchestra works, with the slightly awkward 4th Concerto and the Paganini Rhapsody. The former has always been a problematic work to me, slightly meandering in places and not quite as memorable as the three previous concerti. But it was fun to put the piece together and Olga’s approach here was similar to her view of the 1st Concerto, with an emphasis on structure and form.
I had never done the Isle of the Dead and the Rhapsody together. What a perfect pairing they made for the second half of the concert. It was not just the use of the Dies Irae in both pieces but also the contrast of these two pieces that made it most interesting. The ONL really seemed to love the Isle and played with more than the requisite tonal color needed.
Rach/Pag, as it is known in musical circles, is the composer’s final work for piano and orchestra. By this time, Rachmaninov is in complete command of his orchestration skills and often the piano serves as a collaborator rather than just a soloist. It was a terrific end for the cycle and we immediately talked about resurrecting the recording idea as well as possibly presenting the cycle in Paris.
Now that the 12-13 Season has concluded, I look forward to next year. As with Detroit, this was a time when the orchestra and I came together in very palpable ways. I am constantly reminded of how fortunate I am to be the music director of these two great ensembles.
I am also reminded that I have got to stop going to one great restaurant after another. It is time to use the summer and get the weight off once and for all.
See you next month,