October 15-16, 2022
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, op. 18 (1901)
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Symphony No. 1 (1988) Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance
Chaconne: Guido's Song
By Tim Munro
Art is not life. A composer’s joyful vacation doesn’t necessarily result in joyful music. Tragedy does not necessarily lead to tragic music. Yet, sometimes experiences do cut so deep, do take such space in our heart, that they must spill onto the page.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is a record of an artist’s survival. Deep in the stasis of depression, Rachmaninoff could see no way out. This concerto, dedicated to his therapist, was his companion as he took his first steps into the light.
“I have lost many friends and colleagues to the AIDS epidemic,” wrote composer John Corigliano. “My Symphony No. 1 was generated by feelings of loss, anger, and frustration. [I wanted] to memorialize in music those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing.”
Piano Concerto No. 2
Born 1873, Semyonovo, Russia
Died 1943, Beverly Hills, California
January 1900, Moscow. The gaunt 24-year-old Sergei Rachmaninoff lies on a couch, repeating a mantra: “You will begin to write your concerto. You will work with the greatest of ease. The concerto will be of excellent quality.”
Rewind three years, to the chaotic premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony. The orchestra was scrappy, the conductor drunk, the critics savage. Rachmaninoff felt “a paralyzing apathy. Half my days were spent on a couch, sighing over my ruined life.”
Today, he might be diagnosed with clinical depression. Rachmaninoff wrote nothing for three years, but continued to tour as a concert pianist. After a successful London performance, he found himself promising a new piano concerto. “A second and better one.”
Rachmaninoff wasn’t confident he could deliver. Friends recommended a psychiatrist who specialized in hypnotherapy and the repetition of positive mantras. Rachmaninoff responded well to these sessions, and was able to move forward with the new work.
The Second Piano Concerto breathes with the air of Rachmaninoff’s childhood. The concerto opens with evocations of the deep bells of the orthodox church. The orchestra answers with a slow, step-wise chant melody.
In the slow movement we might feel the cooling breeze of Rachmaninoff’s beloved family residence, Ivanovka. “This steppe was like an infinite sea where the waters are actually boundless fields of wheat, rye, oats, stretching from horizon to horizon.”
At Ivanovka, he found happiness, motivation. “The smell of the Earth, mowed rows and blossoms. I could work—and work hard. Every Russian feels strong ties to the soil. Perhaps it comes from an instinctive need for solitude.”
The finale, despite its minor mode, brims with the crackle of electricity. The premiere of this concerto ushered in Rachmaninoff’s most productive period. In the next fifteen years, he would write many of his most beloved works.
First performance: November 9, 1901, Alexander Siloti conducting, with the composer as soloist First SLSO performance: March 12, 1915, Max Zach conducting, with Ossip Gabrilowitsch as soloist
Most recent SLSO performance: April 15, 2018, David Robertson conducting, with Simon Trpčeski as soloist
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings
Approximate duration: 33 minutes
Symphony No. 1
Born 1938, New York, New York
John Corigliano is among America’s most celebrated orchestral composers. He has won almost every conceivable prize and been performed by the finest ensembles across the globe.
For Corigliano, writing music is not easy. “Composing is a battle,” he has said. “It’s like squeezing a stone for a drop of water.” To begin, Corigliano mulls concepts, ideas. “I type them out. I draw pictures of them. I build the piece before I write the music.”
For the First Symphony, Corigliano drew on deeply personal inspiration: “A few years ago I was extremely moved when I first saw “The Quilt,” an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by their loved ones.
…I have lost many friends and colleagues to the AIDS epidemic, and the cumulative effect of those losses has, naturally, deeply affected me. My Symphony No. 1 was generated by feelings of loss, anger, and frustration.
This quilt made me want to memorialize in music those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing. I decided to relate the first three movements of the symphony to three lifelong musician-friends. In the third movement, still other friends are recalled in a quilt-like interweaving of motivic melodies.”
All quotes are edited from notes by Corigliano himself.
Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance. “This music is highly charged and alternates between anger and nostalgia. It reflects my distress over a concert-pianist friend contracting the disease.” A timpani rhythm is “a kind of musical heartbeat.” A quiet central section begins with offstage piano, “as if in a memory, playing a transcription of Isaac Albeniz’s Tango, a favorite piece of my friend.” Eventually, “the relentless, pulsing timpani heartbeat” ratchets. “A final burst of intensity concludes the movement, which ends on a desolate high note in the violins.”
Tarantella. “The tarantella…is a ‘dance played at continually increasing speed. By means of dancing, insanity [attributed to tarantula bite] could be cured.’ This movement was written in memory of a friend who was an executive in the music industry. He was also an amateur pianist, and in 1970 I dedicated a tarantella for piano to him. My piano piece proved both prophetic and bitterly ironic when my friend [developed] AIDS dementia. I tried to picture some of the hallucinatory images that would have accompanied that madness, as well as the moments of lucidity. The ending can only be described as a brutal scream.”
Chaconne: Giulio’s Song. “Giulio was an amateur cellist, full of that enthusiasm for music that amateurs have and professionals try to keep. After he died, I found an old recording of the two of us improvising on cello and piano, as we often did. That tape provided the extended cello solo in this movement.” At the beginning of the movement, “repeating chords hazily dissolve into each other, and the cello melody begins over the final chord. Halfway through this melody a second cello joins the soloist. This is the first of a series of musical remembrances of other friends.” To generate these remembrances, Corigliano set short eulogies as songs for solo instruments, then removed the texts. At the end, the music quiets, and the solo cello takes us without a break into the Epilogue.
Epilogue. “To me, the sound of ocean waves conveys an image of timelessness. This last section is played against a repeated pattern consisting of slow ‘waves’ of brass chords. Against these waves, the piano solo from the first movement returns, as does the tarantella melody (this time sounding distant and peaceful), and the two solo cellos, interwoven between, recapitulate their dialogues. A slow diminuendo leaves the solo cello holding a single note, finally fading away.
First performance: March 15, 1990, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim conducting
First SLSO performance: January 23, 1997, Marin Alsop conducting
Instrumentation: 4 flutes (doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets (third doubling E-flat and contrabass clarinet, fourth doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings Approximate duration: 41 minutes
Tim Munro served as the SLSO’s Creative Partner from 2018–2022. In 2023, he becomes Associate Professor of Music at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in Australia.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.