Musical Musings

The Sarasota Orchestra Blog

Even though the first Star Wars movie had its premiere nearly 40 years ago, it seems everyone - no matter how young or old - can immediately identify the movie's opening theme. (I bet you just started humming it!)

That's because music and imagery go hand-in-hand - and, the works on this Masterworks' all-Russian program show off the different possibilities inherent in this relationship.

If you saw the movie "Shine," about pianist David Helfgott, you know Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 - or as it's now better known, "Rach 3." In the movie, the work becomes a metaphor for Helfgott's own struggle with mental illness, and as he overcomes his inner demons, he conquers this seemingly impenetrable concerto as well.

Despite the incredibly simple melody with which it opens, Rach 3 quickly reveals itself to be wildly virtuosic - and the movie casts the work as the most difficult concerto in the repertoire.

While Rach 3 became famous because of a movie - Isaak Dunayevsky became famous because of movies. His career was based mostly on compositions for operettas and films - and one of his most popular works today, The Children of Captain Grant, comes from his soundtrack to a 1936 Soviet adventure movie based on a book by Jules Verne.

Tchaikovsky's Winter Dreams symphony is associated with pictures, too, but not quite as literally as the Rachmaninoff and the Dunayevsky. From the opening movement, Tchaikovsky uses associations with extra-musical material - elements outside the score - to make his music incredibly rich. 

From the very beginning, the melancholy melody for flute and bassoon, the stormy central section, a wholly surprising pause for the whole orchestra - Tchaikovsky uses pictures to liberate harmony, instrumental color, and form. 

Nikolai Zverev & Students

Sergei Rachmaninoff and his mentor, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, share a penchant for melody. However, the similarities don't stop there.

#1 Not Destined for Composition, Were They

Tchaikovsky's parents intended that Pyotr study law and work in civil service. He shocked them by becoming a composer instead. Granted, Tchaikovsky's ultimate earning potential in civil service vs. music probably wasn't terribly different!

It was always obvious that Rachmaninoff would be a musician. However, nobody thought he would, or even should, be a composer. Such sentiment included his own teacher Nikolai Zverev, who discouraged him from composition and they eventually stopped speaking as a result. Clearly, his teachers and critics grossly underestimated modern audiences' obsession with virtuosity.

#2 Childhood Trauma

Tchaikovsky was sent to a boarding school at the young age of ten. Already troubled by the separation from his parents, his mother died when he was just fourteen.

Rachmaninoff's parents were wealthy but his dad squandered the inheritance through various ill-reputed pursuits, causing his parents to divorce when he was ten.

#3 Depression

Both composers deeply struggled with depression. Tchaikovsky's was due in large part to being gay in a time and place that couldn't deal with it.

Rachmaninoff's came from his desire to be a composer. Even though he was a famous pianist, Rachmaninoff faced considerable criticism for his compositions. The premiere of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 was terrible with typical criticism such as this from César Cui:

"If there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a program symphony on 'The Seven Plagues of Egypt,' and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would bring delight to the inhabitants of Hell."

César Cui

Rachmaninoff didn't compose a single note for three years. Following much psychotherapy, Rachmaninoff got over his depression-induced writer's block enough to compose the Second Piano Concerto in 1900.

See this video of Perry So conducting the Hong Kong Phil. He is known for how expressive he is while conducting. This video illustrates why.

I couldn't be more excited to see guest conductor Perry So lead the Sarasota Orchestra at the upcoming Masterworks concert. Why? Well, he's one of the world's most in-demand young conductors. Just this season alone, he will make his debut with the Houston, New Jersey, Grand Rapids, Omaha, Shanghai and Guangzhou Symphony Orchestras. Did I forget to mention that one of those debuts is with the Sarasota Orchestra?

And if that wasn't convincing enough, Geoffrey Newman of Vancouver Classical Music had this to say about Perry So:

"This was a conquest for this young conductor. His orchestral control is really stunning, and the sheer quickness of execution and massed power that he coaxed out of the orchestra is something we do not see that often... An inspired concert."

Geoffrey Newman of Vancouver Classical Music

Another cool tidbit? Perry So was an inaugural Dudamel Conducting Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which, is quite the honor. Dudamel is one of the most exciting personalities in classical music.

A frequent guest conductor on five continents, he also likes to stick to his roots. Perry was born in Hong Kong, and recently concluded four years with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra as Associate Conductor.

This season he gives three world premieres, one of which, will be local Sarasota composer Jerry Billik's world premiere of "Symphony in M-L." It's always thrilling to be one of the first audiences to hear a new piece of work.

There is so much going on at this Masterworks concert Eroica, the last word I’d use is ‘stuffy.’ This is evidence that classical music is alive, dynamic and worth experiencing live! If you'd like to check it out, learn more here.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a Russian composer whose music and lifestyle was much gossiped about. For starters, we don't truly know how he died. He either died from drinking un-boiled water tainted with Cholera, his physicians killed him, or he killed himself slowly with arsenic as he was gay in a time and place that didn't accept it.

We will never truly know (though, our bet is on Cholera).

As a gay man, his relationships with women were quite complex. In 1877, he began a lengthy correspondence with an older woman who provided for him financially for 13 years and whose only stipulation was that they never meet. (Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, huh?)

Nazedha von MeckIndeed, Tchaikovsky couldn't bring himself to utter one word to his benefactress, Nazedha von Meck, the one time they met in a chance encounter. Nowadays, we would call them online lovers.

Over the year, they exchanged some 1,200 letters. The two were also connected through family: Tchaikovsky's niece Anna married von Meck's son Nikolai. This union was arranged by von Meck and Tchaikovsky themselves, however it was an unhappy arrangement. Interestingly, Tchaikovsky and von Meck died within two months of each other.

Antonina Miliukova1877 was a big year for Tchaikovsky. The same year that he began corresponding with von Meck, he hastily married a highly unstable woman, Antonina Miliukova, who wrote him loads of fan mail. (There's still hope for you Justin Timberlake fans — keep writing!)

There must have been a big misunderstanding: he thought she knew he was gay and that their marriage would be strictly platonic. When he realized this was not the case, his distress caused a near nervous breakdown. Two weeks after the marriage he attempted suicide. She eventually died in an insane asylum 24 years later. But, they never officially divorced.

Too bad Reality Television didn't exist at the turn of the century, or else we would all be watching Keeping Up with Tchaikovsky on E!

Lauren Hersh

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Lauren Hersh, the newest addition to the Development team.

In her newly created role, Director of Donor Engagement, Individual and Corporate, Lauren works directly with corporations, foundations, and a portfolio of individual donors to the Orchestra.

A Sarasota native (and Riverview High alumna), Lauren's love of music started at a very early age. She even played flute with the Sarasota Orchestra’s youth orchestra during high school and also participated in the Debutante program.

She went on to DePauw University in Indiana, where she received her bachelor of music in music business and flute performance. (And yes, she does still find time to practice the flute! She told me she was just playing some Handel sonatas at home.)

Following her studies, she moved to New York City, where she worked with the New York Philharmonic and Young Concert Artists, before deciding to move back to Sarasota.

"Working with the New York Phil was wonderful, but here at the Sarasota Orchestra, we are so fortunate to really know our patrons. It's a close-knit family. We have a very philanthropic community, which I just love. It's so unique to Sarasota, which is why we moved back."

Lauren Hersh

One of her favorite perks of the new gig? Hearing the musicians rehearse through the walls!

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Fasten your seat belts ladies and gentlemen, you're in for one wild musical adventure! Ironically, the creation of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909 could owe its birth to an automobile.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was desperate for money in 1909. He wrote to a friend about the possibility of a tour in America to make some extra cash: "I don't want to go. But then perhaps, after America I'll be able to buy myself that automobile... It may not be so bad after all!"

Rachmaninoff did in fact purchase his first car in 1912 and it is purported that he bought himself a new automobile every year after that. He got the car, and audiences got Piano Concerto No. 3. (Not a bad trade!)

Many say that "Rach 3" is one of the most difficult piano concertos of all time. In fact, the pianist it was originally written for (Josef Hoffman) declined to perform it, unwilling to take the risk publicly.

Rachmaninoff had a mostly off-again relationship with critics and audiences for his compositions. Known and beloved for his skills as a pianist, his compositions weren't what turn of the century audiences were looking for. Perhaps his concerto's difficulty is a jab to his critics.

Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff's music persevered. Vladimir Horowitz, a Russian-born American classical pianist and composer, championed the work in the 1920s and it is now beloved by audiences and critics all over the world.

"Rachmaninoff said that he wrote the Third ‘for elephants,' and with its massive chords, cascading and leaping octaves, high-speed runs, dense counterpoint, and wide-spaced, busily embellished textures, it does demand a pianist with strength, dexterity, control, and stamina — and big hands."

Kevin Bazzana, Canadian music historian and biographer

Beethoven"Beethoven changes what it means to be a concerto... He was the first to set the piano against the orchestra. The soloist and the orchestra are in a dialogue - as if in battle."

George Nickson, principal percussion with the Sarasota Orchestra

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his fifth and final piano concerto shortly after the French occupation of Vienna—a less than ideal situation, as the composer himself described:

"What a destructive, unruly life around me! Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of all sorts!"

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Battling against his inevitable hearing loss, Beethoven had also been forced to take refuge in his brother Kaspar's basement, burying his head in pillows in a vain attempt to protect his ears. In spite of the calamitous circumstances surrounding its conception, the Piano Concerto No. 5 is considered by many to be the culmination both chronologically and stylistically of Beethoven's efforts in the genre. 

By the time of the work's premiere in 1811, deafness had effectively put an end to his performing career. Perhaps because he could no longer serve as soloist, the Emperor was the last piano concerto Beethoven would ever write.

In addition to its generally heroic tone, the work also uses the key of E-flat major, which Beethoven also used in the Symphony No. 3, Eroica (1803). You can hear Beethoven's third symphony in the second Masterworks concert of the season (aptly titled, Eroica). 

We'll have Marc-André Hamelin joining us as the soloist for the Emperor piano concerto, which George Nickson, principal percussion, says is a great treat for the Orchestra.

"He is one of the world's greatest virtuosos of the piano. He is really widely-known for having one of the greatest techniques on the instrument. It's great that we have him here in Sarasota."

George Nickson, principal percussion with the Sarasota Orchestra

If you don't already have your tickets to Masterworks The Emperor on November 6-8, click here.

{adapted from Program Notes written by Jennifer Glagov}

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Written byHerald Tribune

 Literally gripping the arms of my seat, I was not the only one propelled on this rollercoaster of delightful music.  

Written byHerald Tribune

 Every section and soloist within the orchestra played their role with strength and beauty; every tree proud and tall. Tali served as an excellent guide leading the forces with assured confidence. The overall sound was lush and, yes, intense just where it needed to be.  

Written byHerald Tribune

 The Sarasota Orchestra was brimming with bubbling energy...  

Written byHerald Tribune

 A lifetime of musical moments, cinematic in scope, gave every section of the orchestra a leading role at one time or another. Chief among them was the virtuosic solo of concertmaster Daniel Jordan.  

Written byHerald Tribune

 It was a thrill ride resulting in an explosion of audience enthusiasm.  

Written byThe Observer

 Andrew Lane, the Orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, knows how to program a winning event and this concert had something for everyone. It also brought in a whole new audience that seemed dazzled by the performances.  

Written byThe Observer

 The Sarasota Orchestra played a program this past weekend filled with so much color, it was like visiting the Louvre.  

Written byHerald Tribune

 The performance... was exceptional, bringing new and stunning sonorities from a larger than usual Sarasota Orchestra under the dynamic leadership of Anu Tali.  

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CY Hong

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