Thanks to the movie “Shine,” virtually everyone has heard about “Rach 3,” or Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto.
But before “Rach 3,” even before “Rach 2,” there was “Rach 1,” the composer’s Opus One. Why don’t we hear this work more often than we do?
It has a lot of the characteristics we think typical of Rachmaninoff’s ultra-Romantic composer’s style. Or does it?
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson and conductor David Lockington--who collaborate in the work with Pacific Symphony, Wednesday and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--believe it does and doesn’t.
“The First Concerto doesn’t try to beat you over the head with the melodic material,” Lockington said recently from Michigan, where he has just become head of the Grand Rapids Symphony.
“But there are all the elements of future Rachmaninoff in it--fanfare passages, driving rhythms, beautiful melodies. What’s not there is that long soul-sweeping melody you find in the Second and Third concertos.”
“First of all, the piece probably wasn’t born in a flurry of inspiration like No. 2,” Ohlsson said from New York, where he was playing a recent concert with the San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas.
“The work was written when the composer was very young, then totally revised and rewritten. And when Rachmaninoff came to America, he played No. 3 very often. Both pieces have these sort of Hollywood, big-tune endings . . . The first doesn’t have anything like that.
“But it’s fierce, just like the others. You have to be a monster pianist to play it.”
In playing it, soloist and conductor have to figure out exactly how they’ll work together--who sets the tempo, who leads and who follows, so to speak.
“It’s the responsibility of the soloist to do the shaping,” said Ohlsson. “Nevertheless, it is a give and take, a discussion. A conductor is also a collaborator.”
“Sometimes the orchestra is simply an accompanist, and it’s a question of balance. At other times, there’s this answering back and forth.
“I don’t think the orchestra’s phases should necessarily be a carbon copy of the soloist. But if there is a stylistic chasm between the two--if one is played very lightly and one is played bombastically, that would be a problem.
“But I love it. It’s one of the most challenging things to being a conductor.”
From one point of view, a concerto is a musical form that explores the philosophical question of how the one and the many relate. That will vary from work to work, the two said.
“In this case, it’s a romantic symphonic virtuoso style,” Ohlsson said. “So we have to be relatively in accordance. It’s not like Brahms’ First, where there is a conflict between one versus the mass.”
But because the work is “very mercurial,” that’s what makes it difficult to collaborate.
“I’ll tell you a secret about where the difficulties lie in the relationship between an orchestra and the soloist,” the pianist said. “Transitions are the toughest things in all collaborations.
“Driving at 65 mph on a straight road, you don’t have to do much. When the road gets more complicated, then you do. Music is a little bit the same way.”
The road gets even more twisty because Rachmaninoff’s Concerto will be played between Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” and Holst’s “The Planets.”
“What’s rather interesting about the program,” said Lockington, “is there are these keys that carry us through the end of the last century. Romanticism, as represented by Rachmaninoff, has come up again at the end of the last century.
“Then there are Ives’ experimental and philosophical qualities, which have influenced composers all the way through the last century.
“The Holst is representative of a piece inspired by folk music. At the turn of the century, a lot of composers started searching through folk music and immortalized it in composition. Holst has done that with at least a couple of the sections.
“And some elements, while not actually Minimal--the rocking back and forth of a simple rhythm or a simple harmonic--were absolutely captured by the Minimalists. I rather like the juxtaposition of the pieces and how they represent the century.”
In fact, it may be hard to assess Rachmaninoff’s importance, according to Ohlsson.
“Rachmaninoff is very much loved for his hit tunes,” he said. “I consider him an underrated composer. That may be a strange thing to say since he’s so well known and well liked. But we don’t know that much of his music. He certainly was a very serious and noble composer, of great gifts.”
* David Lockington will conduct the Pacific Symphony in music by Ives, Rachmaninoff and Holst on Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Garrick Ohlsson will be the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1. $18 to $50. ($10 student/senior rush tickets.) (714) 556-2787.
Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.