Program Notes

with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances

John Williams (1932- )
Escapades from the movie Catch Me If You Can
Duration: ca. 10 minutes

Any history of American music requires a chapter on John Williams, one of the most gifted and prolific film composers of the last half century. He gave Jaws and Jurassic Park their bite, sent E.T. soaring, added cosmic magic to Star Wars and provided emotional undercurrent for Schindler’s List.

One of his 52 Oscar nominations for best original score was for the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. The biography follows the life of Frank Abagnale, a con artist and forger who ended up working for the FBI to help crack the very schemes he had mastered.

Williams infused his soundtrack with jazz elements of the mid-1960s, when Abagnale was at his devious best, and scored it to reflect the main character’s sleuthing, his dysfunctional family relationships, and fantasies about being other people. Designed like a multi-movement concerto, it stands on its own as an orchestral piece. Williams provided his own notes in the published score:

“The film is set in the now nostalgically tinged 1960s, and so it seemed to me that I might evoke the atmosphere of that time by writing a sort of impressionistic memoir of the progressive jazz movement that was then so popular,’’ he explains. “The alto saxophone seemed the ideal vehicle for this expression and the three movements of this suite are the result.’’

Williams had to get inside Abagnale’s head, and write music that was both psychologically nuanced and propelled the action. The brilliance of the score reflects an eccentric if creative criminal mind, and the tensions of a man constantly on the run. 

“Frank’s music is always conceiving a new scam,’’ Williams notes. “It’s in his character – that little musical trigger takes us off on a new escapade.’’

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Duration: ca. 32 minutes

“Surcharged emotionalism” is how the late critic Arnold C. Schonberg pinned down Tchaikovsky, among the most red-blooded of composers, a “weeping machine” who spun melody as easily as others breathe air.

Such descriptions are common in conversations about the popular Russian composer, whose last three symphonies, ballet music, piano and violin concertos, tone poems and 1812 Overture have been consistent box office hits for generations. The Tchaikovsky canon ranks second only to Beethoven on the playbills of American orchestras.

The reason is clear. Audiences relate to Tchaikovsky’s sentiment, sincerity and directness. At its best, his music flows to the heart, requires almost no analytical homework, is rhythmically exciting, and abundantly tuneful. But something else draws listeners to this intriguing man. His personal life was wrapped in paradox, and his suffering, hyper-sensitivity and mental anguish inevitably found their way into his music.

Tchaikovsky studied with Anton Rubinstein at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and for a decade made a modest living teaching in Moscow. His social insecurities put a strain on his professional life, but his financial survival was assured by Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy music lover who admired Tchaikovsky’s music enough to subsidize it. Oddly, the two never met.

Of Tchaikovsky’s five concertos, two are evergreen: the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Violin Concerto. Written and orchestrated in less than a month in 1877, the latter was intended for the virtuoso Leopold Auer, who read through the solo parts and deemed the score unplayable. (As a historical note, the concerto’s most ardent champion in the early 20th century was Jascha Heifetz – a student of Auer).

The concerto is by no means original. It borrows from European models, most notably Mendelssohn, but with a high-intensity Russian nationalism thrown in for good measure. Like the Piano Concerto, it’s melodramatic, and wastes no time introducing a big, bravura tune that the violinist Joshua Bell described as “extroverted, loud and flashy.”

The first-movement cadenza is a nail-biter that commands steely focus and technical security from the soloist, just as the canzonetta (“little song’’) is a quiet benediction requiring a Mozart-like grace from both violinist and orchestra. The marking for the finale – allegro vivacissimo – is true to the letter, sending the raw, fully exposed fiddle scampering ahead of the band until everyone meets head-on in a rousing climax.

As popular as it is today, the concerto began on a sour note. After its premiere in Vienna in 1881 – with soloist Adolph Brodsky – the critic Eduard Hanslick published a scathing review: “The violin is no longer played. It is beaten black and blue’’ and the music “stinks to the ear.”

Hanslick’s words haunted Tchaikovsky for the rest of his life, although the pan wasn’t helped by Brodsky’s poor playing. No matter; the concerto went gold and global, claiming a place alongside those of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruch and Sibelius.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
Duration: ca. 35 minutes

Rachmaninoff lived most of his life in the 20th century, but his music is a product of the romantic era, a throwback more in line with his countrymen Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov than his contemporary, Stravinsky.

He wrote music that stuck to the ribs of the conservative public, and he would take pride in knowing his Second Piano Concerto remains the single-most played concerto in the repertoire. The Second Symphony, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the herculean Third Piano Concerto (the subject of the 1996 film Shine) remain embedded in concert halls across the globe.

The Symphonic Dances is Rachmaninoff’s final work, composed in 1940. He had considered calling it Fantastic Dances, on which he gave individual titles for each movement: “Noon,” “Twilight” and “Midnight.” He abandoned the names, and let the symphonic description speak for the music’s abstract character.

The first section is a sprawling march, moving forward on massive harmonic waves and rugged dynamic shifts. The middle movement serves as an ever-changing waltz, one that may have influenced Leonard Bernstein in his own waltzes for West Side Story.

The finale is a macabre dance broken into four distinct tempos, and features the Dies IraeDay of Wrath – a medieval chant that fascinated the composer throughout his career. The music ends in dramatic fashion, with the entire orchestra crashing in on itself in a series of explosive chords that the composer said symbolizes victory over death.  At the end of the manuscript he wrote the words “I thank thee, Lord.’’

Symphonic Dances is Rachmaninoff’s most modern-sounding composition, and possibly his best, with the feeling of a clean color palette, forceful expression, pungent harmonic bite, and sprinkled with autobiographical quotes from his other works. It’s also remarkable for including the alto saxophone – hardly a traditional classical instrument – in a haunting first-movement solo.

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a St. Petersburg-based writer and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.