Program Notes: Gershwin Rachs

Gershwin Rachs

Concert Date: March 12, 2022 

Featuring Mikhail Berestnev, piano and Susan Sturman, cello 

In every way imaginable, tonight’s program is all about virtuosity. “Virtuoso” is such a strange, almost comical, word. Its roots are in the word virtue and virtue is something we associate with goodness and a certain elevated quality of spirit. Gandhi, one might say, was virtuous. But the concept of a virtuoso in music is quite something else- someone highly skilled who is not afraid to show off that accomplishment, often with a bit of swagger. It is a bit of a stretch to picture Gandhi exhibiting swagger.

Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso for Cello and Orchestra is said to have been composed in a week during the summer of 1887- a virtuoso feat in its own right. Despite its lighthearted title, the work is mostly somber in nature and set in the key of B minor, although it does eventually find its way to major. At the time Tchaikovsky was composing the work, he was visiting a sick friend, and it is believed that the dark mood of the visit found its way into the composition. After hearing this virtuosic short work- one of only two Tchaikovsky composed for cello and orchestra, the other being the Rococo Variations– you may find yourself wondering why he never composed a cello concerto. It is possible that he considered the idea. He had been asked to compose a cello concerto by the same cellist for whom he composed tonight’s work. But he died one month after the request was made. Before he died, he may have begun working out ideas for a cello concerto because a 60-measure fragment was later discovered on the back page of the rough draft of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. And in 2006, the Ukrainian cellist and composer, Yuriy Leonovich, completed a conjectural Cello Concerto based on that fragment.

The violinist, Nicolo Paganini, may have been the first true virtuoso, enjoying his day’s equivalent of rock star status. He expanded the violin’s technical possibilities far beyond the achievements of anyone who came before him. His 24 Caprices for Solo Violin still stand as a test of a concert violinist’s technical prowess. The 24th Caprice, structured as a theme and variations, has inspired more than a few composers to take its musical ideas and spin their own virtuoso showpieces from it. Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra is a prime example of just such a piece. It is composed as a theme and twenty-four variations in which, after a brief introduction, the first variation is heard before the theme is played, followed by the remaining twenty-three variations. It is possible that Rachmaninov was mimicking the unconventional structure of the last movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, “Eroica”, also a theme and variations. It is worth noting that as virtuoso performers and composers, in personality and temperament, Paganini and Rachmaninov could not have been more unlike each other. Paganini was ever the consummate showman, a womanizer and even owner of a gambling casino who never discouraged stories of his various pacts with the Devil. Rachmaninov, on the other hand, was known to be insecure, self-critical, suffered from crippling depression, superstitious, and morose. 

George Gershwin wanted nothing more than to be taken seriously as a composer. He already had money and fame. When he encountered other famous composers from the realm of “serious music,” he asked them to accept him as their student. The list is quite long and impressive: Ravel, Varese, Boulanger, Schoenberg, Bloch, Toch and Stravinsky. And every one of them turned him down without a second thought because they already saw him as a skilled composer with an authentic, original voice. Ravel, when asked for his instruction, replied, “Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?” And as legend has it, Stravinsky, upon Gershwin’s request, asked how much Gershwin was earning. Gershwin replied that he was earning over $100,000.00 a year. Stravinsky quipped, “In that case, it is I who ought to study under you!” Although there were witnesses to the exchange, in later years Stravinsky dismissed the story as nonsense. An American in Paris, composed in 1928 and premiered in the same year by the New York Philharmonic, is a jazz- and blues-inspired walk through Paris of the 1920s. It is a virtuoso showcase for the entire orchestra as well as a brilliant piece of orchestration. The score includes saxophones and four taxi horns that Gershwin brought back to New York from the visit to Paris that inspired the work. The initial public reaction was very favorable but its connection to popular music led many critics to question its place on a concert program with the likes of Franck and Wagner. In response, Gershwin said it best: “It’s not a Beethoven Symphony, you know…It’s a humorous piece, nothing solemn about it. It’s not intended to draw tears. If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds.” With the Overture to Girl Crazy, composed and premiered in 1930,we are transported to the world of the Broadway musical- an environment in which Gershwin had few rivals in his day. Girl Crazy gave us many of the great standards that are still so popular today: Embraceable You, But Not for Me, and I Got Rhythm. The opening night pit orchestra contained some notable performers: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Glenn Miller. 

The Swan from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens, heard tonight in an arrangement for solo cello and orchestra, opens our program but I wanted to leave it for last because it represents a special kind of virtuosity far removed from the flash and dazzle of Tchaikovsky and Paganini by way of Rachmaninov. When I was a young violin student, my teacher tried to impress upon me an important musical concept. He said that a lot of players can play a lot of notes fast- that is not the hardest thing in the world to do. But what really shows off a musician’s skills is their ability to play a long, slow musical phrase beautifully. What may sound technically easy takes great finesse and control to do well. This all sounds very Zen, and, in a sense, it is. But that is everything we find in The Swan– long musical lines that play out in the manner of a swan gliding effortlessly and in slow motion across calm waters. Of the fourteen movements that make up Carnival of the Animals, The Swan was the only one that Saint-Saens would permit to be performed on its own in public. He found the other movements too insubstantial and feared that his own music would ruin his reputation as a serious craftsman.

Written by

Craig Sorgi ©2021 All rights reserved

The Swan from Carnival of the Animals – C. Saint-Saens 

Pezzo Capriccioso – P.I. Tchaikovsky

Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini – S. Rachmaninoff 

Overture to Girl Crazy – G. Gershwin

An American in Paris – G. Gershwin