Opening Spectacular

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Piano Concerto in G Major

September 26 & 27, 2015
Program Notes by Paul Hyde

A colorful, jazzy exuberance informs Ravel’s sprightly Piano Concerto in G Major, composed in 1931. Ravel may have been inspired by George Gershwin and other jazz musicians he encountered on a trip to the United States in 1928. But the French composer prefers a spirit of irony and playfulness over Gershwin’s more athletic exertions.

Ravel said the concerto was inspired by the lighter works of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. He added: “I believe that a concerto can be joyous and brilliant, and that there is no necessity for it to aim at profundity or big dramatic effects.”

The concerto, written in the customary three movements, certainly is a dazzling showpiece for a solo pianist.

I. The first movement opens with a whip-crack and a sparkling tune played by piccolo and quickly taken up by trumpet while the solo pianist offers shimmering arpeggios. Scampering episodes alternate with more reflective, impressionistic themes.

II. The second movement is a nocturne based on a simple, flowing melody introduced by the unaccompanied piano. When someone praised this opening theme, Ravel responded, “That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar. It nearly killed me!” A wistful lyricism dominates the movement.

III. The brief finale is a witty rondo, full of flashy and difficult passage-work for the fleet-fingered soloist. Both soloist and orchestra rush toward the finish line at breakneck speed.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2, Op. 27, E minor

This seems a November symphony, a work that gazes backward in mid-winter, though warmed by nostalgia.

Nostalgia for what? A lost homeland? A lost love? The joys of childhood?

The listener may decide.

It is a big, generous symphony, the longest of Rachmaninoff’s orchestral works. Certainly, there are uptempo themes. The second movement, to continue the wintry metaphor, begins as a jolly sleigh ride. The fourth movement, with its festive air, evokes the approach of Spring.

But it’s the heartfelt episodes that one most remembers – the wistful first movement, the tender third movement.

The third movement especially. Did Rachmaninoff ever write anything to equal its familiar main theme? (Pop singer Eric Carmen turned that theme into a 1976 hit song, Never Gonna Fall in Love Again, proving that a good tune is timeless.)

Throughout the work, Rachmaninoff draws from a deep well of memory and poetic feeling. This autumnal symphony, with its beautiful melodies, represents the beloved Russian composer at his very best.

The work is cast in the traditional four movements:

I. A long introduction offers hints of the first theme and suggests the emotional breadth of the work to come. An English horn solo ushers in a violin theme full of longing. A solo clarinet soon brings in the second theme, a sighing figure for woodwinds with violins in response. Both themes seem to look back, personally and culturally, to a world lost in the mists of time. The melodic material is developed at great length, melancholy introspection alternating with passionate outbursts.

II. The second movement is built upon an urgent, rhythmic motive intoned by the horns. That spirited figure gives way to another of Rachmaninoff’s lush, lyrical melodies. The opening refrain alternates throughout with contrasting episodes.

III. The emotional heart of the symphony offers one of Rachmaninoff’s most irresistible themes – and indeed one of the melodic gems of concert hall. The songful main theme is introduced by violins right at the beginning, followed by a long, lonely clarinet solo. These two themes form the core of the movement. Violins surge toward a passionate restatement of the main theme. Rachmaninoff is not stingy with his melodic riches. The music ebbs and flows, building to a passionate intensity and then subsiding, with the main theme soaring in the violins one moment and caressed gently by solo horn or clarinet the next.

IV. The finale bursts forth with expected exhilaration, delivering a vibrant and almost frenzied dance that recalls the Italian tarantella. (Enough with melancholy and nostalgia, Rachmaninoff seems to say, it’s time to dance.) The energetic opening theme gives way to another beautiful, flowing melody. Rachmaninoff extensively develops the tarantella theme and quotes from earlier movements, providing a strong sense of unity to the work and building to a stirring conclusion.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville News. Paul also presents the free pre-concert talks for the Greenville Symphony. Follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.