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Program Notes: Kern Plays Rachmaninoff - available until
Costa Mesa, California
Friday, 30 April 2021 - 7:00 PM
Presenter: Pacific Symphony
Ensemble: Pacific Symphony
Conductor: Carl St.Clair
From the Vault: Prepare to be bedazzled when Olga Kern performs Rachmaninoff’s diabolically delightful variations based on a virtuosic violin caprice by Paganini. This electrifying Van Cliburn competition-winning pianist has a special gift that captivates audiences the world over. As The Washington Post says: “Call it star quality—music loves Kern the way the camera liked Garbo.”

This performance, originally captured on Sept. 24, 2016, will be available for FREE streaming on our YouTube and Facebook channels from April 1 through April 30. Check back in on April 1 for the links.


Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation Virtual Classical Series

Janet Curci Family Foundation

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion, harp, strings, solo piano
Duration: 24 minutes

Was Rachmaninoff the greatest pianist who ever lived? We will never know. But this unanswerable question is the subject of renewed interest among music historians and keyboard fanciers.

Not so long ago, the thrilling power and sheer dazzle of Rachmaninoff’s piano works, along with their gloriously lush, unrestrained romanticism, began to encounter resistance from some piano purists. But listeners who cherish great pianism have joined with scholars who have rediscovered lost Rachmaninoff piano rolls, reconsidered his recordings and reevaluated contemporary accounts of his concerts. These reveal not just the pianist of legend with tremendous hands capable of thundering power and speed, but also a poetic, aristocratic interpreter whose subtleties in performance matched the dense layering and structural ingenuity of his compositions.

Which is not to gainsay the appeal of Rachmaninoff’s technical brilliance. In his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini we have a perfect convergence of all the elements of instrumental virtuosity: a melodic subject drawn from a violin caprice by Nicolo Paganini, the violinist who helped invent the very idea of the classical virtuoso superstar; an extraordinary set of 24 variations designed to showcase both compositional and performance skills; a heroic expansion of the original melody’s scale and dynamic range; and special attention to Rachmaninoff’s particular gifts as a pianist—the blazing speed and thundering power that thrilled his audiences.

Rachmaninoff was essentially a figure of the 20th century, the last of the Russian romantics. But his sound was rooted in the 1800s and in the Russian nationalist tradition dating back to Glinka and Tchaikovsky. He trained as a performer and composer in Moscow and St. Petersburg, focusing on the piano in both disciplines. But all expectations for his future life, including his life in music, were shattered by the Russian revolution of 1917, when Rachmaninoff’s aristocratic family lost their long-held estate with its traditional way of life. He became a citizen of the United States and died here while touring as a concert pianist, just three days before his 70th birthday.

Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody in 1934, when he had already written four full-length concertos, and despite his frequent bouts of self-doubt, he had every reason to be confident of its success and formal excellence. Not just a collection of variations on a theme, the Rhapsody is a concertante that is formally constructed, with the 24 variations dividing themselves into three movements in which most of the variations, like Paganini’s original theme, are stated and developed in A minor. The result closely resembles a concerto with traditional fast, slow and faster movements.

Program Note by Michael Clive
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