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Jon Nakamatsu returns to Syracuse to perform Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G. You’ll love Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s picturesque Ballade and the concert closes with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3.

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PROGRAM

COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: Ballade in A Minor, op 33
RAVEL: Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra
RACHMANINOFF: Symphony No.3 in A minor, op.44

 


 

 

PROGRAM NOTES

Tonight’s three composers—Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), Maurice Ravel (1875¬¬–1937), and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)—were born less than three years apart. Today, of course, Ravel and Rachmaninoff are better known; but back in 1898, things were different. Rachmaninoff was reeling from the failure of his First Symphony, a failure so complete that he abandoned composing for years. Ravel was about to be kicked out of his composition class at the Conservatoire for failing fugue exams twice. Coleridge-Taylor, in contrast, was on an upward trajectory.

Elgar had been asked to write a piece for the prestigious Three Choirs Festival. Since he was over-committed, ...
Tonight’s three composers—Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), Maurice Ravel (1875¬¬–1937), and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)—were born less than three years apart. Today, of course, Ravel and Rachmaninoff are better known; but back in 1898, things were different. Rachmaninoff was reeling from the failure of his First Symphony, a failure so complete that he abandoned composing for years. Ravel was about to be kicked out of his composition class at the Conservatoire for failing fugue exams twice. Coleridge-Taylor, in contrast, was on an upward trajectory.

Elgar had been asked to write a piece for the prestigious Three Choirs Festival. Since he was over-committed, he recommended that the commission be directed to Coleridge-Taylor instead—a man he deemed the “cleverest” of the young British composers of the time (a group that included Holst and Vaughan Williams). The resulting work, the Ballade, op. 33, was a tremendous success, and the composer had reason to be confident of his future. And any confidence would have been justified: His choral work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, unveiled just a few months later, was such a world-wide hit that, for many years, it stood up to Handel’s Messiah in terms of popularity.

The Ballade is not quite typical of Coleridge-Taylor. Many of his later works incorporated his Black heritage, as well as Native American elements. The Ballade, not surprisingly given its origins, is more solidly European in spirit, reminiscent of Brahms and Elgar in its muscularity and Tchaikovsky and Grieg in its heartfelt lyricism (the second theme is especially gorgeous). It’s a touch sentimental in spots, too, looking ahead to the “light music” that he had to churn out later in life to stave off starvation. (He sold the rights to Wedding Feast for a pittance, losing out on the royalties that would have secured his well-being.) But it’s sentimentality with total conviction.

We don’t know what trajectory Coleridge-Taylor would have followed if he had not died of pneumonia brought on by overwork. But we do know the artistic trajectories of Ravel and Rachmaninoff; and although the composers are, in many ways, polar opposites (Rachmaninoff the heart-on-the-sleeve romantic, Ravel the precise craftsman), their careers followed a similar route. As they grew older, both produced less; for many listeners, however, their work got better and better.

Ravel’s 1930–31 Concerto in G is the next-to-last work he composed, and there’s good reason for calling it a distillation of his art. Ravel is known as a cool, ironic, anti-romantic. Stravinsky dubbed him the “Swiss watchmaker,” and even at his most spectacular (say, Bolero which we’ll be including on our next Masterworks concert), there’s a sense of control. As tonight’s soloist Jon Nakamatsu puts it, “Every note in the Concerto is perfect.” Explicitly modeled on the classicism of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, it is, for the most part, both light and light-hearted. It begins with what sounds like a ringmaster’s whip, ushering in a first movement of riotous circus activity—and the finale has a similar carnivalesque quality.

Both movements show the influence of jazz—but they’re not really jazz. As Jon points out, “The material has roots in that genre,” but the execution is another matter. He clarifies by comparing Ravel and Gershwin. Yes, the Ravel has a lot of Gershwin hallmarks (not surprising, since the two composers greatly admired each other). There are, for instance, the “incredible melodies and lazy harmonies that relax you.” There’s also the high energy drive: “The third movement of the Gershwin Concerto,” says Jon, “is similar to the third movement of the Ravel with its machine-like quality.”

Still, the differences between Gershwin and Ravel are significant, too. Jon suggests that some of them are parallel to the language differences between American English and French. Thus, even though it’s “jagged,” the Ravel (“entertaining but not super-aggressive”) has a “softer edge.” More important—to return to the issue of jazz—“in Gershwin, you have that possibility of moving things around, swinging things a bit.” If you did that with Ravel, it would “sound un-French.” Specifically, Ravel has a more “disciplined element of structure and order,” and the intricacies of the connections between the piano and orchestra prevent you from taking the same “personal liberties.”

Yet there’s another dimension to the Ravel. Between these two jazz-infused outbursts of joie-de-vivre is a slow movement, written under the spell of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, where Ravel is at his most romantically profound. Jon fell in love with the Ravel when a teenager—and it was this movement that did it, “one of the deepest and most soul-searching, haunting pieces in the repertoire.” Its high point is the ending, with an “incredible English horn solo,” which Ravel has scored in “a perfect way.” Specifically, says Jon, it’s the “ideal register for the instrument; and above that solo, the piano is doing the most amazing things.” It’s also hard, even “scary,” to perform. “Sometimes, I think I’d rather hear it than do it; but when it works, it is really one of the best feelings, the most chamber-like moments, in all concertos. And how often do I get to play with an English horn?”

It’s not easy to catch the tone of this movement. Ravel’s mysterious final illness was just beginning to stalk him, which “must have scared him to death.” Yet while the slow movement is “melancholy,” it’s not “morbid”—and it’s followed by a Presto that seems to be asking us not to take it too seriously. All in all, says Jon, “The piece is a little mysterious!”

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, written in 1935–36, thirty years after his popular Second, is also the composer’s next-to-last piece—and also a distillation of his art. Or, at least, a distillation of his late art. Rachmaninoff composed little after he left Russia in 1917, and what he did produce was increasingly lean and concentrated. In this regard, the Third Symphony looks ahead to the Symphonic Dances.

True, there’s much that looks back to the earlier Rachmaninoff, too. As I’ve said, he’s known as a somber romantic. In fact, his supposed conservatism was held against him by snobs for decades. And those looking for the Rachmaninoff glower can certainly find it here. For instance, the symphony is bound together by a dark, fatalistic motto theme, as was the Second (and, not coincidentally, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies of his beloved Tchaikovsky). And like so many of Rachmaninoff’s works, including that ill-fated First, it makes use of the plainchant Dies irae theme that represents the “Day of Wrath,” popularized in symphonic writing by Berlioz’s Symphony fantastique. Then, too, the symphony has the strong melodic pull that has made his earlier works so popular. The second theme of the first movement is especially luscious.

Yet if the Second is a vast canvas in oils, the Third has more of a mosaic quality. The basic units are smaller, the surface more often disrupted. Conductor Larry Loh points, for instance, to the complexity of the rhythms: “The first rhythmic section in the first movement is completely off kilter, so off balance and unexpected.” The structure—three movements rather than the traditional four—runs against expectations, too. Rachmaninoff gets down to three movements by mushing two movements together. The second movement begins as a typical Rachmaninoff slow movement, but it turns into a slashing, sharp-edged Scherzo before it returns to its original mood. There’s something unusual in the nature of the melodies, too. The score is full of melodies with a flavor of Russian Orthodox chant. “That sets the tone for the mysterious nature of his melodies,” says Larry. “A lot of them expand outward from an economy of notes.” You’ll hear this technique toward the beginning of the piece. After the brief introduction, with the motto, we get the first theme, played on bassoons and oboes—“a compressed theme that expands outward, becoming so ravishing when the full strings come in.” Finally, the orchestration has a new level of imagination; Larry points to the unusual texture of the opening of the second movement, with its horn solo and harp. “It’s completely inventive.”

The result is the kind of piece Larry likes best: a work with a deeper meaning, rather than one that’s “superficial or written to be enjoyed in a very generic way.” The Rachmaninoff Third, like the central movement of the Ravel, is particularly impressive for what Larry calls its “later-in-life-perspective.” We’ve come a long way from the youthful confidence of the Coleridge-Taylor.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org


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