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Pianist Natasha Paremski returns to perform Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This is the only Rachmaninoff work for piano which Natasha has yet to perform with The Syracuse Orchestra. The show opens with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and concludes with Respighi’s famous Pines of Rome.

PRE-PAID PARKING NOTE: The Harrison Street entrance and exit will be closed due to construction outside the building. All vehicles with a maximum clearance of 6’5″ are encouraged to use the upper Montgomery Street entrance. The Madison Street entrance and exit clearance is 6’5″ and should be used to exit the garage.




BERLIOZ: Roman Carnival Overture
RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
GALBRAITH: Strange Travels
RESPIGHI: Pines of Rome, P. 141


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Susan R. Klenk

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Our concert tonight offers four tributes—two to artists, two to places.
We open the celebration with the 1844 Roman Carnival Overture by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869). The music is drawn from his first opera Benvenuto Cellini, based loosely—very loosely—on the life of the Renaissance sculptor, centering on the casting of his famous statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa. The opera was originally composed in 1838. The premiere was a disaster, and even after significant revisions, it failed to join the repertoire until the twentieth century. In fact, performances are ...

Our concert tonight offers four tributes—two to artists, two to places.
We open the celebration with the 1844 Roman Carnival Overture by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869). The music is drawn from his first opera Benvenuto Cellini, based loosely—very loosely—on the life of the Renaissance sculptor, centering on the casting of his famous statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa. The opera was originally composed in 1838. The premiere was a disaster, and even after significant revisions, it failed to join the repertoire until the twentieth century. In fact, performances are still rare (it’s only had a single run at the Metropolitan Opera). But Berlioz was not one to waste good musical material, and he managed to draw two successful orchestral works from his score. One was the overture to the opera itself; the other, which we’re hearing tonight, was an independent work based on the love music and the carnival music from the opera’s first act.
The Roman Carnival Overture has turned out to be one of Berlioz’s most popular compositions. In part that’s because of its melodic invention (especially the love theme) and its rhythmic vitality. Even more, though, it has attracted listeners because of its spectacular color. Berlioz was a pioneer in this area, the first canonical composer to treat sound per se as an element equal to melody, harmony, and rhythm. The use of the English horn to announce the love theme, the unexpected appearance of tambourines during the carnival music, his incorporation of the newly developed “cornet à pistons” (a valved instrument that had, among other qualities, more melodic flexibility than the unvalved trumpet of the time), and his promotion of the brass and percussion more generally: all this timbral innovation produced a level of sonic excitement few other composers of the day could match.
The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) is, like the Berlioz, an homage to a great artist. In this case, the composer, arguably the greatest pianist of the 20th century, offers his respects to the greatest violinist of the 19th, Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), using Paganini’s familiar 24th Caprice for solo violin as his starting point. (Rachmaninoff’s work can also, less directly, be seen as an homage to the greatest pianist of the 19th century, Franz Liszt, who also recast Paganini’s virtuosic violin music for piano).
Born in Russia, Rachmaninoff emigrated after the Revolution, living briefly in Europe before settling in the United States in 1918. (He did, though, continue to spend many of his summers on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland). He continued his successful career as a pianist, but his output as a composer dropped considerably. Other than a series of brilliant transcriptions and arrangements, he wrote only six works in the last 25 years of his life. It’s hard to be sure what caused the slowdown; it was certainly not any loss of compositional skill, since these works are among his most finely crafted. Even so, most of his late music—falsely derided by critics as “old-fashioned”—was slow to catch on, achieving widespread popularity only after his death. The exception is the Rhapsody, a hit from its first performance in 1934.
On the surface, the Rhapsody seems at first to follow a traditional theme-and-variations format, offering us 24 short and very different “microcosms,” to use a term suggested by tonight’s soloist Natasha Paremski. “Every variation,” she says, “feels different.” But over and above its rapid-fire shifts in tone—including, she believes, several variations influenced by Rachmaninoff’s interactions with American jazz—there are a few formal twists. First, at the very beginning, Rachmaninoff mixes things up. He starts off, conventionally, with an introduction; but then, instead of presenting the theme, he gives us the first variation, only providing the theme itself after that—as if, in his enthusiasm to begin, he’d forgotten about it. Second, as the work continues, we discover that the variations are superimposed over a three-movement structure of the sort you find in traditional concertos, including Rachmaninoff’s: the first ten variations correspond to an up-tempo first movement, the next eight to a traditional slow movement, the last variations to a finale.
Most striking, though, besides the main theme, there is a secondary theme snaking through the Rhapsody: the Dies Irae, the plain-chant setting of the “day of wrath” from the Latin Requiem Mass. It’s an especially appropriate musical allusion, since Paganini’s virtuosity was so great that during his lifetime he was rumored to be in league with the devil. Does this connection suggest a story behind the music? Yes, says Natasha. And indeed, a few years after the work’s composition, Rachmaninoff and choreographer Michael Fokine worked together on a narrative ballet using the Rhapsody. She elaborates: “Towards the beginning of the piece, there’s the appearance of a woman that Paganini falls in love with. The 18th Variation—and even if you think you’ve never heard the Rhapsody, you’ve heard the 18th variation, that’s for sure!—is the culmination of their love. But then he decides, ‘I’m still going to sell my soul to the devil, because I still want to be the most virtuosic violinist that ever lived.’” And how does it end? “It doesn’t end well: you’ve got the Dies Irae, so obviously he goes to hell.” But it happens “in a kind of joking fashion”—since just as we near what sounds like a standard loud ending, there’s an unexpected twist. Rachmaninoff is often considered a humorless composer—in fact, Stravinsky called him a “six-and-a-half-foot scowl.” Not so here.
This scenario may help explain why Rachmaninoff used the Dies Irae theme. But then again, he needed no encouragement. The theme shows up often in the 19th and 20th centuries—in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, in Liszt’s Totentanz, in Mahler’s Second Symphony.… But no composer was as preoccupied with it as Rachmaninoff was, and he turned to it again and again—and again. Here, it first shows up in the piano in the seventh variation, and it nearly takes over the piece as the brass shout it out in the final variation.
What can listeners expect from tonight’s performance? Even if you know the piece well—in fact, even if you’ve heard Natasha play it before (she’s recorded it twice)—you’re apt to hear something new. Although she’s been playing it since she was 11, it’s always changing. True, she says—comparing the work to a building—the “general architecture” remains constant: “You can’t mess around with the beams, unless you tear the whole thing down and start over. But then it’s not the Paganini Rhapsody anymore. It’s a whole different house.” But within the building, you can make changes in the details: “You might do different colors, or a slightly different inflection of the phrasing here, a slightly different voicing over there.” In fact, if the piece is to remain interesting to the audience, you have to do that. “If I’m kept on my toes, you’ll be kept on your toes. But if I’m doing the same thing from night to night, from week to week, nobody’s going to care. Because if I don’t care, why would you care?”
As for people new to the piece: “If you have a chance,” she says, “give it a listen beforehand, so that when you go to the concert, you’ll feel, ‘Yeah, I know this. This piece is my friend. We’ve hung out already.’” The importance of friendship marks not only Natasha’s view of listening, but also her view of performing. “That’s the beauty of playing with The Syracuse Orchestra and Larry Loh. He can read my mind. I can read his mind. I can read the orchestra. Everybody’s reading each other’s mind….” As you know if you’ve attended any of Natasha’s previous appearances in Syracuse, the result is an unusual sense of community.
Strange Travels by Nancy Galbraith (b. 1951) also offers a tribute; but in this case, it’s a tribute not to a person but to two places that she visited on a trip to Thailand: Khao San Road in Bangkok and the ancient ruins at Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was once a Siamese capital. “The title,” says the composer, “alludes to the sensation of motion imparted by the music, through two aural landscapes of an unfamiliar, almost otherworldly nature.” The “high energy” first movement has a strong minimalist feel, derived from its reliance on the repetition of small gestures, on syncopations, and on metrical shifts, which together create an infectious rhythmic drive that only “dissipates” in the final measures. The second movement has traces of the same elements, but they’re less consistent—and less foregrounded. Rather than energy, the primary quality of this movement, the composer says, is “awe”—specifically, the awe she felt when facing historic ruins that are centuries old. There’s more sustained music here—and even when the music is motoric, it’s often superimposed on majestic brass that gives it a grandeur the first movement didn’t have. Strange Travels was originally composed for chamber orchestra in 2013, but it was revised for full orchestra in 2022. The new version was premiered at Carnegie Mellon University (where Galbraith teaches) by our own Music Director Larry Loh, who of course conducts it tonight as well.
The concert concludes with another tribute to a place: The Pines of Rome, the central panel of the so-called Roman Trilogy by Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936). It’s a programmatic tone-poem in four linked movements, each celebrating a particular spot in Rome, each with a different atmosphere. First, at the “Pines of the Villa Borghese,” we hear the raucous sound of children at play. Even if you don’t already know the song “Madama Dorè,” which is tossed around the orchestra throughout, you’ll recognize it as a children’s song (more specifically, one that accompanies a circle game). The mood changes dramatically for the second movement, “Pines Near a Catacomb”—somber music quoting, as Respighi often did, Gregorian chant. Next, night falls on the “Pines of the Janiculum”—some of the most evocative music the composer ever wrote. Against soft string sounds, we hear a solo piano, followed by a solo clarinet (played “as if in a dream”), joined later on by a flute. From there, the music builds languorously. Eventually—a particularly striking effect—we hear (via a recording) a solo nightingale, and the music descends into silence. Finally, after Respighi at his most sensitive, we have Respighi at his most sensational—the “Pines of the Appian Way,” a vision of ancient warriors, with off-stage brass ringing out in one of the most glorious outpourings of sound in the standard repertoire. A perfect ending to the season.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@SyracuseOrchestra.org