‘Dreamers & Titans’ Program Notes

‘Dreamers & Titans’ Program Notes

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor

Few pieces in the classical repertoire begin as dramatically as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. And from beginning to end, this beloved piece is a virtuosic showstopper. Small wonder it remains one of the most popular pieces of classical music around the world.

But its creation was far from easy. In 1897, the young composer’s first symphony had been premiered in St. Petersburg, and it was viciously denounced by critics and the press. One writer went so far as to suggest that the work had been created in a “Conservatory from Hell.” Rachmaninoff was devastated. Struggling with self-doubt and mounting financial problems, he found it almost impossible to compose. It didn’t help that, during this time, he visited the venerable Leo Tolstoy and played one of his pieces for him. “Tell me, is such music needed by anybody,” Tolstoy reputedly said. “I must tell you how I dislike it all….”

With that, Rachmaninoff stopped working entirely. Fortunately, friends and family urged him to see Nikolia Dahl, a musician and hypnotherapist, who helped Rachmaninoff recover from his depression and begin writing a new piano concerto. Composed between the autumn of 1900 and spring of 1901, the piece, dedicated to his therapist, premiered at the fall of 1901 – and was a huge success.

One of the greatest pianists of his day, Rachmaninoff soon began performing his towering piano concerto on tours, including in America, where he became something of a celebrity. Perhaps only a virtuosic pianist could have composed such a work, with its huge note span, dynamic extremes, dizzying cascades of notes, and multiple voices. Throughout this monumental concerto, Rachmaninoff expertly weaves melancholy themes, perhaps born of his period of depression, with themes that capture the sweetness of romantic yearning. Indeed, Rachmaninoff, it turns out, was a gifted songsmith. Themes in the first movement inspired two popular Frank Sinatra tunes (“I Think of You” and “Ever and Forever”). The third movement inspired the song “Full Moon and Empty Arms.” The theme appears in the film Brief Encounter. And in The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe says “Every time I hear it, I go to pieces!”

Mahler – Symphony No. 1 in D major

First composed in February and March of 1888, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 was premiered in Budapest in a performance conducted by the composer. But from the start, the piece met with indifference, bewilderment, or what a critic at the premiere called “a small but, for all that, audible element of opposition.” For years, in fact, Mahler’s first symphony met with a chilly reception whenever the composer performed it.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Mahler continued revising the work. In the process, he was exploring not only his own gifts as a composer but the very nature of a symphony and what it could contain. A significant part of the challenge he took up in composing the work was incorporating so many diverse sounds – including military fanfares, funeral marches, bird song, the children’s song Frere Jacques, peasant dance music, café music, reveille and even yodeling. During his struggles to complete the first symphony, as one critic wrote, “the young composer went from apprentice to journeyman to master.”

The first symphony was finally published in 1899. Today, the work is regarded as one of Mahler’s great achievements, creating a rich and varied aural world that continues to delight and surprise new listeners.

The symphony you will hear this weekend includes the Blumine movement, which appeared in the original score as the second movement. Mahler revised the work in 1893 and performed it a year later still as a five-movement work. Later he was persuaded to drop Blumine, and the symphony as published contains just four movements. This concert offers a rare chance to hear the five-movement symphony as Mahler first envisioned it.

Mahler described the feeling of the symphony’s first movement as “like a sound of nature.” The movement has a spring-like quality, with a cuckoo played by the woodwinds and the sound of distant fanfares. The second movement, Blumine, or “bouquet of flowers,” depicts youthful love. The third movement is a spirited waltz, which the composer once characterized as depicting a happy dream. The fourth movement is a solemn funeral march with a twist; woven through it is the children’s song Frere Jacques (known as Bruder Martin in German). During part of the movement, the timpani play a solemn, almost obsessive march rhythm. Finally, the march slowly fades, as if the procession is disappearing into the distance. The tempestuous final movement begins with a bang – in fact, Mahler said it should start like a bolt of lightning ripped from a black cloud. Toward the end, the score calls for the seven French horn players to stand, creating a wall of sound that almost overwhelms the rest of the orchestra.


Program notes by Peter Jaret.

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