ADAMS, MOZART AND RACHMANINOFF
Spring is the right time for Mozart’s glowing and sun-dappled Piano Concerto No. 23, which will be brought to life by the exceptional Argentine pianist, Ingrid Fliter. Conductor Edo de Waart then leads the Orchestra in the rich orchestration and passionate melodies in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, a late Romantic piece that is without a doubt one of the great Russian composer’s best-loved works.
John Adams: The Chairman Dances; Foxtrot for Orchestra
Few conductors have had a closer association with John Adams, one of the US’s greatest living composers, than Edo de Waart. He has been associated with the premieres of many of Adams’ works and has championed them with enormous commitment by giving them many further performances.
In 1987, Adams’s groundbreaking opera Nixon in China was premiered in Houston. His "Foxtrot for Orchestra," The Chairman Dances, was written a few years before that premiere while Adams was gathering his very first ideas for the composition of that opera. In the opera’s last act there is a scene, almost like a dream sequence, in which the main characters are trying to understand what has happened to them. President Nixon and his wife Pat are lying in their beds, talking to one another or to themselves, while in another place Mao Zedong, the "Chairman" of the piece’s title and the dictator of the People’s Republic of China, and his new wife, the ex-film starlet Chiang Ch’ing (and his mistress for many years) are dancing together, in a grotesque erotic dream, in which the Chairman imagines himself as young once again.
Adams is clear: The Chairman Dances was not a sketch for this strange moment in the opera, but a preliminary fantasy of the sort of music he might use for it, although he allows that some of the themes from this orchestral piece did actually make their way into the later score.
The composer himself gives this description:
I started somewhat hazily working on the music, not knowing if it had the right tone, and pretty soon I realized it wouldn't work at all for the opera — it was a parody of what I imagined Chinese movie music of the '30s sounded like....[a] vast fantasy of a slightly ridiculous but irresistible image of a youthful Mao Tse Tung dancing the foxtrot with his mistress Chiang Ch'ing, former movie queen and the future Madame Mao, the mind and spirit behind the Cultural Revolution and the strident, unrehabilitated member of the Gang of Four.
W.A. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488
Mozart’s cycle of 27 piano concertos is one of the richest and most beautiful sequences in Western music. A great pianist of our time once described these concertos as “like the plays of Shakespeare… an inexhaustible treasure-house of human experience”.
Most of these pieces were written for the composer himself to play, and he performed them not just in concerts but in evenings in private homes. Often, the orchestra he used was quite tiny, just a handful of players like a chamber ensemble, though sometimes he would gather (by the standards of the time) quite a large group of musicians. But it was only in the Romantic period that this music began to be played with a symphony orchestra in much larger venues. And of course, the modern piano on which we mostly nowadays hear these pieces is a very much louder and larger animal than the tiny, beautiful, delicate instruments on which Mozart himself played.
Although Mozart wrote piano concertos throughout his life, the most astonishingly productive period of creating these pieces lasted only about 2 years, between 1784 and 1786, when he wrote twelve of the piano concertos, stretching from No. 14 to No. 25. The 23rd Piano Concerto in A Major, which has long been one of the best loved, with its incredible series of heart-stopping melodies, dates from towards the end of this period.
In his own day, Mozart was as much admired as a player as he was as a composer. And he was especially loved as an improviser. (Beethoven and he were considered, by those who heard them both, to be the two greatest improvisers of the age, although their styles were very different.) In the score of this concerto – as in many of the others – there are often passages where Mozart did not write down – and never wrote down – exactly what he was going to play. The piano part, absolutely beautiful though it is, is only a sketch or a skeleton – or perhaps a "note to self" – which we know Mozart would have treated as the starting point for gorgeous inventions which may well have varied from one performance to the next, depending on what he felt like at that moment, how well the other musicians were playing, and whether the audience was paying attention.
Modern pianists take different approaches. Some add all sorts of decorations, like jazz musicians, trying to see how far they can take the original idea. Others prefer to leave the notes exactly as they find them, on the grounds that what Mozart left behind on the page is in itself wonderful enough for all of us.
A good example of this is in the central slow movement of this concerto. There are moments when Mozart just provides a bass line, leaving it completely to the pianist to embroider as they see fit, or a particular turn towards the end when the orchestra steps back slightly, leaving the solo part with a series of isolated notes in the right hand (high, low, low, high, and so on) which must have defined the outer limits or turning points for whatever sonic territories Mozart himself chose to explore on the occasion.
That’s the greatness of this extraordinary music. You can never pin it down, and it can mean different things every time you come back to it.
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
Sergei Rachmaninoff was not only one of the greatest composers of his time, but one of the greatest pianists of all time, and an extremely fine conductor (at one point in his life he nearly became Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra). As he said, in later years, with somewhat rueful modesty: “I have chased after three hares and who is to say whether I managed to catch any of them?”
In 1906, horrified by the political turmoil and repression in Russia in the wake of the 1905 Revolution, and seeking to spend less time performing and more time composing, he took his wife and daughters to Germany to spend three years in the beautiful city of Dresden. And his first task there was to begin work on his gigantic Second Symphony.
This was a big move for Rachmaninoff. The premiere of his First Symphony 12 years before had been a disaster which had left him traumatized. To attempt a new symphony, therefore, was in some ways to try and exorcise a ghost.
For many years the opulent late Romantic sound-world of this symphony meant that it was somewhat out of fashion. It was a generation of conductors in the 1970s, led by the great American André Previn (himself a pianist, composer and conductor), who really brought this work back into the repertoire. It is now one of its composer’s best-loved pieces.
What draws in most first-time listeners is the abundance of haunting melodies. But that impression in itself turns out to be a little more complicated at second glance. For a start, many of the melodies feel very similar to one another, as though one can hardly tell the difference between them. They often seem to wander up and down, in little waves of scales. The effect is half that of ancient Russian church chants, half the same Russian folk music that we hear in earlier Russian composers like Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. But though these tunes seem very similar to each another, the miracle of this music is that these keep changing all the time, sometimes in the smallest of ways. They seem the same, but they also seem different. The effect is not so much of actual tunes (with a beginning, a middle and an end) but of a ceaseless flow of the musical surface of this symphony. It’s like watching the rippling of the waves on the surface of a stream, or the movement of wind through the leaves of a tree.
And the second quality of this music which draws us in is its astonishing orchestration. One great conductor of our time, who doesn’t like Rachmaninoff’s music, calls it “perfumed.” Just as the melodies seem to blend into one another, changing shape but remaining always part of a single vision, so the orchestral sound is always being blended by the composer, as the sound of one instrument bleeds into another, without our being aware where one ends and another begins. It’s an effect rather like that of a "dissolve" in the cinema.
If you are curious to hear this quality in action, try the opening of the symphony. This effect of the sound of one instrument turning into another is most noticeable in the middle of the orchestra’s range, especially when Rachmaninoff leads us from the sound of the clarinets into the sound of the French horns and from there into the violas. What he creates is something like a single voice which passes like a shadow from one part of the orchestra to another without our being completely sure how he did it. Or take the beginning of the second movement, the slow movement: a beautiful wave of sound rises out of the depths, a deep continuation of the music of the first movement which ended only moments before. The body of the sound is created by the strings, but the horns and wisps of sound from other wind instruments create a mysterious and constantly changing glow behind the strings. As the wave subsides, into the space above it a solo clarinet emerges, like a bird flying above the ocean.
It's one of those moments which should make us give thanks that we have such a thing as the art of live music in our world.
– San Diego Symphony Creative Consultant GERARD MCBURNEY
- Jacobs Masterworks
Choose a date below to see details.
Here's Edo de Waart conducting "The Chairman Dances" with the San Francisco Symphony.
André Previn made several live recordings of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, and here is one of his most thrilling, with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Give a listen to Mozart's 23rd Piano Concerto on original instruments, with the great American scholar and Mozart specialist Robert Levin, playing the solo part. It’s fascinating!