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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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
Elgar had been asked to write a piece for the prestigious Three Choirs Festival. Since he was over-committed, ...
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
[Beethoven’s] Second Piano Concerto also strikes me as a work that is smack in the middle of Jon
Nakamatsu's sweet spot as an interpreter. "Elegant" can be a two-edged adjective in describing a performance; Nakamatsu's finely judged reading of this concerto was not only drop-dead elegant, but also full of Beethoven's signature energy. The pianist added just enough percussiveness to lyrical passages to keep them from drooping, and his playing of the "Adagio" was hypnotic, particularly at the end: wonderfully focused and wonderfully poetic.
—February 1, 2019
Mr. Nakamatsu will perform as soloist with Austin Symphony, Santa Cruz Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony under the aegis of the Cliburn, and Symphony Silicon Valley. He collaborates with the Miró Quartet in two programs at the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival in summer 2019, and appears in chamber concerts with the Jupiter and Modigliani Quartets, as well as Imani Winds. Recital performances include engagements with the Steinway Society of the Bay Area, International Classical Concerts of the Desert, Reynolds Chamber Concerts, and Chamber Music San Francisco.
Mr. Nakamatsu has been an active guest soloist with leading orchestras throughout his career, including the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, Atlantic Classical Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Boise Philharmonic, Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Bozeman Symphony, Cape Cod Symphony, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Fresno Philharmonic, Greenwich Symphony Orchestra, Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra, Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, Helena Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Las Cruces Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Meridian Symphony, Milan Symphony Orchestra, New Mexico Philharmonic, Oklahoma City Philharmonic, Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Chile, Peninsula Symphony Orchestra, Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, Reno Philharmonic, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, San Jose Wind Symphony, Santa Cruz Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Stockton Symphony, Symphony Silicon Valley, Symphoria Syracuse, Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Toledo Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, and West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. His numerous summer engagements have included appearances at the Aspen, Tanglewood, Ravinia, Caramoor, Vail, Wolftrap, Colorado, Aloha International Piano, and Britt festivals, as well as the Chautauqua Festival, where he has served as Artist in Residence since the Summer of 2018.
Among the many chamber ensembles with which Mr. Nakamatsu has collaborated are the Brentano, Escher, Jupiter, Miami, Tokyo, Parker, Prazak, St. Lawrence, and Ying String Quartets, the San Jose and Mission Chamber Orchestra, and Imani Winds. He also tours frequently with the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet and in 2008 debuted on the Philharmonic’s chamber music series performing with the Quintet and members of the orchestra. That same year, the Manasse/Nakamatsu Duo released its first CD (Brahms Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano) which received the highest praise from The New York Times Classical Music Editor James R. Oestreich, who named it a “Best of the Year” choice for 2008. In addition to their joint concert performances Mr. Nakamatsu and Mr. Manasse serve as Artistic Directors of the esteemed Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, founded by pianist Samuel Sanders in 1979.
Mr. Nakamatsu has collaborated with such esteemed conductors as James Conlon, Philippe Entremont, Marek Janowski, Raymond Leppard, Gerard Schwarz, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Michael Tilson Thomas and Osmo Vänskä. In 1999, Mr. Nakamatsu performed at the White House at the special invitation of President and Mrs. Clinton. Other engagements include solo recitals with the American Beethoven Society, University of Georgia, Athens, Arts Council of Moore County, and International Classical Concerts of the Desert, as well as solo performances in New Jersey, Pensacola, FL, Waco, TX, Japan’s Okinawa and Miyako Islands, and several cities throughout the state of California.
He records exclusively for harmonia mundi USA, and has released twelve CDs to date. All have garnered high critical praise. Notable releases include an all-Gershwin recording with Jeff Tyzik and the Rochester Philharmonic featuring Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F which rose to number three on Billboard’s classical music charts and a trio disc of works by Brahms, Beethoven, and Weber with Mr. Manasse and cellist Clive Greensmith, which has elicited brilliant reviews from The New York Times (“Mr. Nakamatsu’s fleet-fingered clarity enhancing the vivacious outer movements and all three playing with deep expression in the Adagio”), Gramophone (“a most enjoyable disc, beautifully played and recorded, with the three players joining together to make a perfect ensemble”), and audiophile edition (“Every once in a while a disc comes along so good that I would award it six stars if my editor allowed such things”).
A high school teacher of German with no formal conservatory training, Jon Nakamatsu’s electrifying performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto won him the Gold Medal at the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition amidst a field of experienced competition warriors. Mr. Nakamatsu had studied privately with the late Marina Derryberry from the age of six, and worked with Karl Ulrich Schnabel, son of the great pianist Artur Schnabel. He also studied composition and orchestration with Dr. Leonard Stein of the Schoenberg Institute at the University of Southern California, and pursued extensive studies in chamber music and musicology. Mr. Nakamatsu is a graduate of Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in German Studies and a master’s degree in Education. In the fall of 2016, Jon Nakamatsu joined the piano faculty of the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Mr. Loh’s previous positions include: Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Syracuse Opera; Resident Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Music Director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra; Associate Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Associate Conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Denver Young Artists Orchestra.
Having a particular affinity for pops programming, Mr. Loh has been engaged for repeat performances with Chris Botti, Idina Menzel, Ann Hampton Callaway, the Texas Tenors and more. He has assisted John Williams on multiple occasions and conducted numerous sold-out John Williams tribute concerts. He is particularly adept at conducting concerts synchronizing live orchestral music with film, and he has lead Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Pixar in Concert, Disney in Concert, The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain, among other concert productions.
Mr. Loh is active as a guest conductor, both in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to annual concerts in Pittsburgh and Dallas, his recent engagements include the Boston Pops (Tanglewood); Detroit Symphony; San Diego Symphony; Seattle Symphony; Buffalo Philharmonic; and the Cathedral Choral Society at the Washington National Cathedral. Past engagements include the National (Washington D.C.), Indianapolis, Tacoma, Utah, Naples, Knoxville, Florida, El Paso, San Luis Obispo, Edmonton, Colorado, Charleston (SC), Malaysia, Daejeon (South Korea) and Greater Bridgeport Orchestras. His summer appearances include the festivals of Sun Valley, Bravo Vail Valley, Aspen (CO), Mann Center in Philadelphia, Breckenridge, Las Vegas, Hot Springs (AR), the Kinhaven Music School (VT) and the Performing Arts Institute (PA). In the summer of 2016, he made his debut at Tanglewood, conducting Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony with the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Orchestra and returned in 2017 to conduct the Boston Pops.
Mr. Loh received his Artist Diploma in Orchestral Conducting from Yale, his Masters in Choral Conducting from Indiana University and his BA, and Certificate of Management Studies, from the University of Rochester. Lawrence Loh was born in southern California of Korean parentage and raised in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He and his wife Jennifer have a son, Charlie, and a daughter, Hilary. Follow him on instagram @conductorlarryloh or twitter @lawrenceloh or visit his website, www.lawrenceloh.com.