Tag Archives: rachmaninoff

van cliburn, rest in peace


I grew up in a household that loved classical music. My father was stationed in Germany in the early 70’s (went through Checkpoint Charlie dozens of times, I’m told), and collected quite a few records while there. Some of them remain my favorites to this day. Karajan’s 100th Anniversary recording of Beethoven’s Ninth, for example, or the Schubert and Schumann song cycles rendered by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Fritz Wunderlich. Wunderlich’s Dichterliebe still melts my heart to this day. Anyway, among those records was his 1958 debut recording of Tchaikovsky’s First and Rachmaninoff’s Second piano concertos. I practically wore out those poor LP’s. I just was so smitten by the sheer sonic richness and romantic phrasing of Cliburn – even though I was maybe only just beginning to study the violin at the time. That sound has stuck with me through the years a lot, and occasionally there is a pianist who approaches that concept (Andre Watts is a prime example), but I’ve yet to find one who has eclipsed Cliburn in sheer beauty of sound.

last chance for parker/oso combo

Jon Kimura Parker – Photo: Oregon Symphony

Want so hear some of the most gorgeous Mozart piano playing ever? Want to hear a cool new piece that will make you laugh with glee? Want to have your senses overloaded with the incredible Symphonic Dances of Rachmaninoff? Your last chance is tonight at the Oregon Symphony. Get your tix now (or find someone with a ticket stub from the previous nights, and get a ticket for $5)!

Alfvén: Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 (Midsommarvaka)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20, K.466
Andrew Norman: Drip
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances


on napping and fingering

It’s official: I’ve reached the age where an afternoon nap is essential to a decent performance. My eyesight is also not as good as it used to be: I have to go to the eye doctor soon and see if I need glasses. These two factors seemed to play a role in my part of this past weekend’s performances.

First of all, this is not a hugely difficult program. The Russlan & Ludmilla overture is part of our bread and butter. We trot it out for just about every kids or special concert to wow the crowds. It was tightened up a bit for Carlos, but was pretty much business as usual for us. The Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto is not a staple of ours, but it doesn’t have any huge technical demands. Finally, the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony is in the blood of this orchestra, so while it does present some technical challenges, it is a known quantity to us.

So, what makes this program interesting is that the concerto and the symphony are tricky – you cannot let down your guard for a second, or you will make a grievous error. There is one section in the last movement of the Prokofiev that is renowned to viola sections due to its trickiness – it’s a passage that is probably quite easy to play on Prokofiev’s chosen instrument – the piano – but it’s really a pain to play on a stringed instrument.

It’s sort of the same deal with the Rachmaninoff. It’s written quite well for stringed instruments, but some of the bowings that result from what Rachmaninoff writes present some challenges, such as feeling like your bow ought to be going in the opposite direction that it is. What makes the edition that we use infuriating is that it has a ton of printed in fingerings that some boneheaded editor thought would be helpful. Let’s talk fingerings for a moment, shall we? Ok. Fingerings are exactly what you might think. They’re notations that tell us which finger of our left hand to place on the string for a given note. Some musicians (like me) use a fair number of them. Others (like Joël, my stand partner) prefer to have as few notations as possible in the part. Each set of stand partners will come to some sort of equilibrium as to how much is written in the part. But at least you have a choice. In the Rachmaninoff, they’re printed in, so they cannot be erased, or even effectively written over (which just makes more of a mess). So you’re stuck with whatever crazy fingering some violist from the 1940’s put in there. Here’s an example from our part:

So, one is spending a few milliseconds per note trying to figure out what one’s own fingering is while also ignoring the printed fingering, but also trying to figure out if the printed one actually matches one’s own fingering. You might see why that would present some problems when the music is flying by at half-note = 80 or so.

More on the weekend’s concerts soon…

russian triptych

Elina Vähälä

The rehearsal period for our first classical series concerts has finished, and Saturday night we play our first of three concerts here at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (click here for tickets). It’s an all-Russian program (which can often feel like an all-rushin’ program, with all of the fast passagework that such repertoire often entails), but rather than being a one-size-fits-all sort of ‘Russian’ program, it neatly highlights the work of three very different composers: Glinka, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff.

Glinka’s Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla is a sparkling showpiece for full orchestra. While all sections of the orchestra get their due (including the timpani), it is the string section that does much of the heavy lifting in this fantastically propulsive piece of music. The scoring is quite light and transparent – compare it to Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy on Romeo & Juliet, and you’ll notice the difference right away. It’s a good piece in which scan the string sections for signs of smoke from overly enthusiastic bowing. Bring those opera glasses!

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 is a welcome piece for two reasons. First of all, it’s got the most gorgeous slow movement of any violin concerto written in the 20th century. Second, Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä has returned to perform it with us. Listening to this concerto is almost like seeing the fMRI scan of a schizophrenic’s brain. A beautiful melody is interrupted by sul ponticello scraping, an elegant waltz is rendered with four extra beats, the bass section moans and groans, the violas wail, and the trumpet heckles from the sidelines. It’s the sort of piece that demands the utmost of both soloist and orchestra. They both need to be able to change moods and styles on a dime. Luckily, both we and Ms. Vahala are up to the challenge (sorry, the umlauts got too tiring to type). I’m more amazed than ever that Elina does not have a more major career than she has at this point. It just goes to show how many fantastically talented violinists are out concertizing these days. She’s a beautiful, elegant player, but not a shrinking violet by any means – she can dig in with the best of them, but I’ve yet to ever hear her make a less than beautiful sound on her 1678 Strad. I’m glad that we’re able to keep re-engaging her in such great repertoire. I only hope that the next time she comes here she’ll play either the Sibelius or the Lindberg concerto!

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 is a huge, sprawling piece – especially when played without cuts, as the orchestra is doing this weekend (though we do omit the first movement exposition repeat). It is my first time playing the full version of the piece, as James DePriest always used his performing edition with substantial cuts in several of the movements. Though it was completed in 1908, it firmly belongs to the 19th century aesthetic. It’s hard to believe that this work was premiered eight months before Mahler’s Seventh! This is a balls-to-the-wall Romantic symphony, nearly 55 minutes in length. Lush string writing dominates the texture, though there are many brilliant passages utilizing the woodwinds and brass sections to great effect. Like the two other pieces on this program, it is written specifically for a virtuoso ensemble, and it is a blast to play when everything goes well.

the real first day, part two

The first full day of ‘real’ rehearsals is done, and it was a pretty good day. The bulk of the rehearsal time was spent on the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, which is a sprawling, romantic work which was the orchestra’s calling card piece under former music director James DePriest. In this coming weekend’s performances, the piece is restored to its full, uncut version. This was one of those times when we revisited a piece that we’d only done in the pre-Kalmar era, and it was revelatory to hear the orchestra play this piece in its current incarnation. Any comparisons to the orchestra’s past glory are simply not applicable, since more than half of the personnel are changed from the recording of the symphony made in 1988. The orchestra is now a virtuoso instrument, quite a change from an orchestra that was scarcely able to garner a lukewarm review of its Hollywood Bowl debut performance back in 1992, where it was described as “merely playing well”.

The brass and wind sections sound amazing, which the well should, being as they play with numbers that suit the acoustical conditions of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, whereas the strings – particularly the lower strings – struggle to make adequate volume without forcing, due to the low complement of the sections due to contract concessions. Seven cellos! Huzzah! If we had Carnegie as our regular hall, we’d be able to get a great bass response from our excellent cello and bass sections, but we don’t play there, not even close, and these guys are blasting their arms off to make the balances work, and at some point there will be some playing injuries as a result, I fear.

Enough belly-aching! It was a fun day of rehearsal, even if it was hard work, and I’m looking forward to returning to this program on Thursday.