Many years ago, when TFO was playing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at the Mahaffey Theater, a young couple on a Saturday night date sat rapt in their seats, entranced by the music. When the pianist introduced the lushly romantic 18th variation, the woman began to cry.
Rachmaninoff can do that to people, particularly in a live concert, where there’s a palpable give-and-take among performers and listeners. At a time when Covid has restricted this kind of experience, such reactions are all the more valuable, said Natasha Paremski, soloist in the Rhapsody during this weekend’s Masterworks concerts in St. Petersburg. Music Director Michael Francis also conducts music from Ravel’s Mother Goose Ballet (with original artwork by Visual Artist-in-residence Geff Strik) and Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst.
“I think that those kind of reactions are what we all hope for,’’ she said by telephone. “The melody of the 18th variation. … I truly believe the genius lies in its simplicity.’’
But tears may come from more than Rachmaninoff. Because concerts today are more restrictive – fewer musicians on stage and much smaller audiences – the experience of making music has changed. In many ways, it’s more intimate.
“Covid has forced arts organizations to challenge the status quo,’’ she said. “It’s all so much different now, and the feeling that even 500 of us will be together in a concert hall … well, I’m going to have a hard time holding back my own tears.’’
The virus certainly has taken its toll at the box office of orchestras everywhere, and forced them to reconsider how they program the standard fare. But innovative ideas and a willingness to try new things has given many groups fresh life, Paremski believes.
“All our spirits come together because music has a profound effect,’’ she said about the shifting dynamic in concert halls. “And performing is different than it was before (Covid). Now, I have more perspective and clarity in the music, and in many ways feel more connected to it.’’
Paremski said she was beginning to burn out in her rigorous touring schedule before last year, and now is more selective about concert dates. But she relishes Rachmaninoff, one of the last of the great romantic composers who could play on emotion as well as anyone, infusing his scores with pungent harmonies and urgent rhythms that are his alone. An anti-modernist, he remains popular today precisely because of his nostalgia. It didn’t hurt to be a master of the piano.
Rhapsody is his tribute to Niccolo Paganini, whose 24 Caprices for solo violin have been revered by fiddle players for two centuries. Paganini was arguably the finest violin virtuoso of the early 19th century, and his ominous looks and brazen technique drew comparisons to Mephistopheles himself.
Rachmaninoff found much to explore in the Caprices, and in 1934 wrote a set of variations for piano and orchestra. He completed the score during a stay near Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, and the stress-free atmosphere may have enhanced the relative effortlessness of his writing.
Although called a rhapsody, it unfolds as a loosely constructed piano concerto in three unbroken movements: variations 1 through 11 make up the first section; 12 to 18 comprise the slow movement; and 19 through 24 flesh out the finale. Most are short, lasting anywhere from 20 seconds to three minutes, and Rachmaninoff added an additional theme with his oft-quoted melody from the Latin Mass for the Dead ̶ the Dies Irae – or Day of Wrath.
The dreamy 18th variation in D flat is the longest set in the score and a tune Rachmaninoff inverts, or turns upside down, from Paganini’s original. The music has become something of a calling card for the composer, and can be heard on pops concerts, in movies and television commercials. Royalties from the score kept him flush with cash. No wonder he once quipped that “this one is for my agent.’’