The Pittsburgh Symphony’s exploration of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music for piano and orchestra this season has done more than present great pieces. It has also provided the opportunity for audiences to enjoy remarkable young artists making their local debuts.
Lukas Vondracek says he’s glad to be coming to Heinz Hall to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 because it’s “certainly a crowd pleaser but above all it’s one of the greatest pieces ever written for the piano.”
Juraj Valcuha will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at March 15 and 17 concerts at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh. The program is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Vondracek as soloist, and Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” and “Fountains of Rome.”
Rachmaninoff wrote his Third Concerto for his 1909 tour of the United States, when he played it with Gustav Mahler conducting the N.Y. Philharmonic among others. He played it with Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1941. It is a composition of astonishing range — from the utter simplicity of its opening to the torrential virtuosity required for its big moments.
Vondracek was born in the Czech Republic in 1982 and gave his first concert at 4. His studies included work at the Vienna Conservatory in Austria and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
“I first learned the Rach 3 about 10 years ago,” he said in an email. “I still remember playing it in public for the very first time, I’m sure all pianists would agree that it’s a nerve racking and unforgettable experience…. This concerto is Rachmaninoff’s crowning achievement in my opinion. I have all his concerti in my repertoire but this one gives me the most joy to play. It’s challenging on so many levels but ultimately extremely satisfying.”
Rachmaninoff is considered one of the supreme pianists in history. Like Mahler, he was a composer who enjoyed tremendous renown as a performer, a career which limited his time to create.
“Much has been said about the extreme technical challenges this concerto poses to the interpreter,” Vondracek notes. “However, I see the piece as a wonderful and very complex emotional journey. From the simple opening melody to the overwhelming climax on the last few pages, and everything in between. There’s passion, there’s heart melting lyricism, so many characters, textures, colors. I’d say this piece really ‘has it all.’ ”
The second half of the concerts will be devoted to a pair of orchestral showpieces by Ottorino Respighi — “Fountains of Rome” and “Pines of Rome.” Both are highly evocative tone poems, each in four sections played without separation. “Fountains” begins and ends with soft and hauntingly poetic music, while “Pines” concludes with an evocation of the overwhelming power of imperial Rome.
Respighi describes the two pieces this way:
“While in his preceding work, ‘Fountains of Rome,’ the composer sought to reproduce by means of tone an impression of nature, in ‘Pines of Rome’ he uses nature as a point of departure in order to recall memories and vision. The centuries-old trees which so characteristically dominate the Roman landscape become witnesses to the principal events in Roman life.”