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Joyce Yang returns for all-Rachmaninoff Concert

DeWaart conducts the MSO this weekend

Apr. 21, 2014
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Joyce Yang
Joyce Yang
Few composers are popular enough for orchestras to want to schedule concerts devoted to their works. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) is one of them. Dismissed as “old fashioned” by the avant-garde composers of his day and the atonal experimentalists of the 1950s, his music continues to be beloved and played while theirs is neither. What he had that they didn’t was a timeless heartfelt ability to express deep human feelings from sorrow to joy, a gift for coming up with great melodies and a huge talent for colorful orchestration. Edo DeWaart will lead the MSO in an all-Rachmaninoff concert this weekend.

The program will begin with an early tonepoem, Prince Rostislav. Written in 1891 when Rachmaninoff was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, it was never performed during the composer’s lifetime. It takes as its point of departure Alexei Tolstoy’s poem in which Prince Rostislav is wounded in battle, lies alone on the battlefield and dies. I’m reminded of my mother’s reaction when I first played Rachmaninoff’s 1908 tonepoem Isle of the Dead on the family hi-fi. When I told her the title, she replied, appalled: “Why are you playing such morbid music?” But it wasn’t just morbid. Its dark melodies overflowed with great beauty.

Returning this weekend will be the phenomenal and likable young Korean-American pianist Joyce Yang. Though petite in stature, her digital power is awesome. She can cover the range from pianissimo to fortissimo with absolute dexterity and perfectly nuanced feeling. In short, she’s one of the most exciting young pianists coming up in classical music today. As of this weekend she will have played with the MSO all of Rachmaninoff’s four piano concertos and Variations on a Theme of Paganini, all five of his major works for piano and orchestra.

Featured this weekend is Piano Concerto No. 4, completed in 1926 but not enthusiastically received. The work exists in three versions. Following its unsuccessful premiere, the composer made cuts and other changes before publishing the revised score in 1928, but that one too failed to excite critics and concertgoers. So he withdrew the work, but eventually revised and republished it in 1941. The passion of the much more popular Second and Third concertos may be more emotionally moving, but there’s something about the Fourth that endears you on further hearings.

The first movement of his Fourth concerto actually comes pretty close to his best stuff. The short, pensive second movement sounds a bit like it’s just holding space between the two outer movements. The finale may seem a bit aimless, but wait for the rousing lead-up to the very end!

The concert will conclude with Rachmaninoff’s last symphony: No. 3, composed between 1935 and 1936. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 is a nonstop flow of melodies in three movements that sweep you away. The gorgeous, slow middle movement is ingeniously interrupted in its middle by an uptempo scherzo section.

There’s no doubt about any of his three symphonies, all now considered masterpieces. No. 1 is great but was too avant-garde for the critics and public of the day (1895). Like Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fourth, which was deemed “too wild” by Stalin and his music bureaucrat watchdogs, Rachmaninoff’s First went virtually unheard until the 1960s, when both made a stunning impact via U.S premiere recordings by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. No. 2 may be Rachmaninoff’s most popular symphony but No. 3, the evening’s climax, is a gem of Romantic splendor.

Edo DeWaart will conduct an all-Rachmaninoff concert with Joyce Yang as guest soloist in Uihlein Hall of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (929 N. Water St.) at 11:15 a.m. on Friday, April 25, at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 26, and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 27.


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