By Ted AYALA
The music of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Franz Liszt: two more sure-fire crowd pleasing composers could scarcely be found. Rachmaninoff’s luscious melodies and Liszt’s glittery virtuosity have been packing houses again and again since the lifetimes of both composers – and look certain to continue doing so well beyond our own lifetimes. No doubt, the music of these composers will have local concert-goers crowding the aisles of Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium (131 S. St. John Ave, Pasadena) this Saturday, May 7 for the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra’s (PSO) closing concert of their season in two performances that day (a matinee at 2 p.m.; evening performance at 8 p.m.).
Programmed are Rachmaninoff’s rich and golden-toned Symphony No. 2 from 1907 and Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1840. Award-winning pianist Chu-Fang Huang will be the soloist in the Liszt. Presiding from the rostrum will be Chilean conductor Maximiano Valdes, who has recorded various CDs on Naxos Records. Among the highlights of his discography is a CD from Dorian Records with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of various orchestral miniatures by composers such as Silvestre Revueltas and Alberto Ginastera called Caramelos Latinos (Latin Lollipops).
The Rachmaninoff symphony, perhaps the composer’s finest essay in that form, was written while he and his family were living in the city of Dresden in Germany. His initial foray into symphonic form became one of the most disastrous and infamous premieres in musical history. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 suffered from insufficient rehearsal time and a conductor (fellow composer Alexander Glazunov) who was not at all sympathetic to the composer’s idiom, and who also may have been drunk during the performance. The critical vitriol spewed upon the composer (Cesar Cui of “The Mighty Five” likened the symphony to the work of a talented student from a “conservatory in Hell”) shook Rachmaninoff deeply and left him in a profound state of depression for many years after.
It was only through sessions of hypnosis in 1900 with a Dr. Dahl that Rachmaninoff began finding his confidence as a composer again. Shortly after the sessions came the perennially popular Piano Concerto No. 2, which won the composer wild acclaim.
Still unsure of his worth as a composer, Rachmaninoff tepidly began work on what would become his Symphony No. 2. Suffering from doubts and insecurity, it wasn’t until the work was rapturously received by the public at its premiere in 1908, under the composer’s own direction, that Rachmaninoff finally won back his security in his craft and became a solid favorite of audiences.
Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is often paired with the First on CD, but is an altogether less virtuosic work that demonstrates a more pensive and reflective side of this often flashy composer. Conceived as a thorough composed piece of music, the work progresses through various sections unified by a single motif heard at its start. Though the concerto makes less obvious use of technical display than Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, it nonetheless requires a top-flight virtuoso equipped to handle its formidable difficulties and to be able to render persuasively this more subtly shaded music. The work’s close peals forth with brilliant scales and chords in a triumphal march of all-conquering victory.
The PSO, no doubt, must feel a great sense of victory themselves when the curtain closes on this season. Under the stewardship of James de Priest and his handpicked guest conductors, the PSO has deftly navigated the turbulent waters of today’s economy, emerging from past conflicts and controversies sounding better than ever.
With the PSO’s outstanding playing washed aglow in the fine acoustics of the Ambassador Auditorium and the announcement of an exciting 2011-2012 concert season, the PSO’s story of triumph is a welcome sign of hope in today’s embattled artistic climate.
For tickets and more information about the May 7 concert, contact the PSO at (626) 793-7172 or (626) 584-8833.
They can also be contact ed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.