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Festival aims to rehabilitate opinion of Rachmaninoff's music

| Sunday, March 29, 2009

When the idea of doing a festival devoted to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff came up nearly a decade ago, Joe Horowitz thought it was crazy, extreme and eccentric.

Horowitz is an author, music historian and consultant to orchestras. He put his concerns aside, though, and created a Rachmaninoff festival for the New Jersey Symphony in 2000, when Larry Tamburri was running it. Tamburri is now president of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

It was a revelation for Horowitz and others.

"We've had a very incomplete notion of Rachmaninoff," he says. "I've come to feel he is the most underrated of the great composers."

Starting Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Symphony will present a nearly three-week festival called "Rediscovering Rachmaninoff" with Horowitz as curator. Events include orchestra concerts, recitals, master classes, conferences, talks and films presented in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne University, the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

Gianandrea Noseda will lead Pittsburgh Symphony concerts Friday through April 5 at Heinz Hall. The program is Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini with pianist Simon Trpceski, the "Spring Cantata" with baritone Vassily Ladyuk and the Mendelssohn Choir, and Symphony No. 1.

Leonard Slatkin will lead Pittsburgh Symphony concerts April 17 to 19 at Heinz Hall. The program is Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, Piano Concerto No. 3 with pianist Denis Matsuev and Symphonic Dances.

Rachmaninoff was born in Russia in 1873 and well established in his career long before 1918 when he emigrated because of the Communist revolution. He settled in the United States and was most active as a concert pianist. He also was an excellent conductor who turned down an offer in 1918 to be music director of the Boston Symphony. He died in 1943.

As a pianist, Rachmaninoff was supreme. RCA Red Seal has issued a 12-CD set of Rachmaninoff recordings -- 11 playing a wide range of piano repertoire and one conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in his own music.

But, although a handful of Rachmaninoff's compositions had become standard repertoire in his lifetime, most were hardly known. And among taste-makers, Rachmaninoff's music was not respected.

Horowitz likes to quote the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which he calls a bible for scholars, that said Rachmaninoff's music "consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes."

With that context, Horowitz says, "The festival embodies a cause. We're not just doing Rachmaninoff. We're making a point."

And he thinks the time is right for his point. "This is a moment we can come back to his music in a fair-minded way because we've lived through a sea change in aesthetics. We're no longer captive to seeing Stravinsky and Schoenberg as the towering figures of 20th-century music. We have to rethink Ravel, Sibelius and, most of all, Sergei Rachmaninoff."

And because listening to music is the practical grounding for thinking about it, the festival includes a broad sampling of Rachmaninoff's music at recitals of piano solo music, two-piano music, chamber music and songs.

Horowitz says the two-piano recital on April 15 "is the most succinct way to challenge the notion (Rachmaninoff) never evolved. It begins with a Russian Rhapsody that could have been written by Rimsky-Korsakov. The two Suites are prime Romantic repertoire, with the second compositionally more sophisticated. The last piece, Symphonic Dances, may be his masterpiece."

The Symphonic Dances also will be performed in their orchestral version at Slatkin's concerts April 17 to 19.

The Symphonic Dances include a modified quotation from his Symphony No. 1, the premiere of which had been a disaster that left Rachmaninoff's ego in tatters. It led to his seeing a psychotherapist and hypnotist who "cured" the composer, who in turn promptly wrote one of his biggest hits, the Piano Concerto No. 2.

Rachmaninoff burned the score of his First Symphony, but after his death it was reconstructed from the orchestra parts. Noseda will conduct it at next weekend's concerts.

Noseda ascribes the failure of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony to the completely drunken condition of the conductor, Alexander Glazunov. "It's gorgeous, so refined and fiery. Its structure is tight. I understand Glazunov was so drunk he was not able to give even the first entrance. No one could understand him."

Noseda, an Italian conductor, became immersed in Russian culture when he spent three months a year for seven years working at the Kirov Theater in St. Petersburg. He says unequivocally, "I love Rachmaninoff."

'Rediscovering Rachmaninoff'

What: A three-week festival of Pittsburgh Symphony concerts, recitals, master classes, conferences, talks and films.

Calendar of events

• Wednesday

3-5 p.m. -- Master class with Maxim Mogilevsky, piano. Duquesne University

• Thursday

7:30 p.m. -- Films "Brief Encounter" and "La Souvriere" introduced by Joe Horowitz. Harris Theatre, Downtown

• Friday

7 p.m. -- Listening to Rachmaninoff with festival curator Horowitz and conductor Gianandrea Noseda, Heinz Hall, Downtown

8 p.m. -- Pittsburgh Symphony concert, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, "Spring Cantata" and Symphony No. 1. Noseda, conductor, Simon Trpceski, piano, Vassily Ladyuk, baritone, Mendelssohn Choir. Heinz Hall.

10 p.m. -- Post-concert performance by Vakhtang Kodanashvili, piano. Heinz Hall

• Saturday

2-5 p.m. -- Conference on "Music, memory and nostalgia," hosted by Horowitz. Heinz Hall

7-10 p.m. -- Repeat of Friday's concert and post-concert

• April 5

10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. -- Conference on "Music, memory and nostalgia," hosted by Anna Nisnevich. University of Pittsburgh

1:30-4:30 p.m. -- Repeat of Friday's concert and post-concert

2 p.m. -- Films "Brief Encounter" and "La Souvriere," introduced Nisnevich. Harris Theatre

7:30 p.m. -- Recital of complete music for two pianos, with commentary by Horowitz, Noseda and Nisnevich. University of Pittsburgh

• April 6

3 p.m. -- Talk by Horowitz on Rachmaninoff, Duquesne University

• April 7

4 p.m. -- Talk by Horowitz on Rachmaninoff, University of Pittsburgh

8 p.m. -- Recital by Natasha Snitkovsky, David Allen Wehr, Edisher Savitski and Mogilevsky, pianos, Anne Martindale Williams, cello, Guenko Guechev, bass-baritone. Duquesne University

• April 11

3 p.m. -- Recital by Pittsburgh Piano Trio. Carnegie Mellon

• April 13

2 p.m. -- Master class by Mogilevsky, piano. Carnegie Mellon

• April 15

8 p.m. -- Recital by Vakhtang Kodanashvili, Svetlana Smolina, Enrique Graf and Serghey Schepkin, pianos. Carnegie Mellon

• April 17

7 p.m. -- Pre-concert with Mogilevsky, piano. Heinz Hall

8 p.m. -- Pittsburgh Symphony concert, Rachmaninoff Vocalise, Piano Concerto No. 3, Symphonic Dances. Leonard Slatkin, conductor, Denis Matsuev, piano, Heinz Hall

• April 18

7 and 8 p.m. -- Repeat of April 17 pre-concert and concert

• April 19

1:30 and 2:30 p.m. -- Repeat of April 17 pre-concert and concert

4:30 p.m. -- Post-concert festival wrap-up discussion with Horowitz, Slatkin, Matsuev and Nisnevich, Heinz Hall, Downtown

Admission: Pittsburgh Symphony concerts: $17.50-$79, pre- and post-concert events are free with concert ticket. Recitals: $10; $5 for university students, faculty and staff, except April 11 which is free. Films: $5-$7. Master classes, conferences and talks are free.

Where: Duquesne University events are at PNC Recital Hall, Uptown. Carnegie Mellon events are at Kresge Hall, School of Music, Oakland. University of Pittsburgh events are at Bellefield Hall, Oakland.

Details: 412-392-4900.

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