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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Evening of Rachmaninoff will showcase virtuosity and passion at Dubai Opera

The European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) will perform his works on April 13

Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943) at the Piccadilly Hotel in London. Keystone / Getty Images
Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943) at the Piccadilly Hotel in London. Keystone / Getty Images

Depending on your perspective, Sergei Rachmaninoff can be seen as a fierce technical innovator who pushed the limits of keyboard composition to unimagined extremes.

Or a hackneyed Romanticist, pulling shamelessly on the heartstrings, his feet stuck firmly in the traditions, and excesses, of the 19th century. From either point of view, he excelled.

Born in 1873, and living a rather healthy seven decades, the quintessentially Russian composer’s career perilously strafed both the stylistic and political upheavals of the early 1900s.

March 28 marked 75 years since Rachmaninoff’s passing, a fact the programmers at Dubai Opera surely had in mind when they invited the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) to perform an evening of his works on April 13.

On the second of a two-night stay, Classical Brit Award-winner Vasily Petrenko will lead the orchestra through two of Rachmaninoff’s best-loved orchestral masterpieces: Piano Concerto No 2 and Symphony No 2 – a double-header so swelling in gluttonous treats, it is likely to strike a familiar chord, even with audiences who have never struggled to mispronounce the Russian’s four-syllable name.

Chief Conductor, European Union Youth Orchestra
Chief Conductor, European Union Youth Orchestra

The landmark Rach Two easily ranks among the popular examples of the form – and has eight times topped the Classic FM Hall of Fame to be crowned the most popular piece of music ever written.

Those listeners might thank Leo Tolstoy, who was reportedly most crushing among the critics of the young Rachmaninoff – then a Moscow Conservatory graduate championed by the mighty Tchaikovsky – following the premiere of hisSymphony No 1 in 1897, under the baton of inebriated conductor Alexander Glazunov. Brutally panned by critics, Rachmaninoff fell into a bout of depression, eventually emerging four years later with the Piano Concerto No 2 – only after a course of hypnotherapy from the physician Nikolai Dahl, to whom the piece was dedicated.

An unrivalled technical virtuoso – with a freakish handspan reaching to an unheard of 13th note of the scale – Rachmaninoff himself performed at the 1901 premiere, which this time earned the composer critical raves, a 500-rouble prize and the first of five Glinka Awards. History was made, and a star was born.

The second movement is, of course, the bit everyone remembers. It was arguably the final scene of the classic British suburban drama Brief Encounter that secured the concerto’s place in the pop culture lexicon, director David Lean thrusting the music’s furious emotions against the stoic composure of leads Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, destined to never realise their love.

Indeed, Rachmaninoff is surely among the most cinematic composers. While the medium reached its first, unrivalled burst of creativity in his lifetime, he could never have dreamt just how powerful his orchestral style would prove – how effective those rapid alternations between lush, swelling strings, bold, dramatic melodic statements and sentimental piano tangents could be – when chopped up and set to moving pictures.

The “Rach Two” would soon be used prominently in Frank Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You (1946), William Dieterle’s September Affair (1950) and Charles Vidor’s Rhapsody (1954). In Billy Wilder’s classic comedy The Seven Year Itch (1955), it is the piece Tom Ewell’s philandering lead turns on to seduce Marilyn Monroe’s character, who breathlessly says “Every time I hear it I go to pieces … I don’t know where I am or who I am”.

She is not alone. Musicians of all stripes and times have fallen under the second concerto’s spell. Frank Sinatra’s Full Moon and Empty Arms (1945), composed by Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman, quotes from the Allegro Scherzando, while the Moderato theme appears in Muse’s 2001 rock song Space Dementia. No tribute or appropriation can match that of Eric Carmen, whose monster worldwide smash All By Myself – later covered by Celine Dion – uses the concerto’s second movement as the basis of its verse. Rachmaninoff’s estate successfully negotiated a 12 per cent cut of the take.

Premiered seven years later, in 1908, Symphony No 2 is perhaps Rachmaninoff’s other best-loved work, only after the Piano Concerto No 3 (1909) – a fabled technical tour de force that apparently drove virtuoso soloist David Helfgott to the brink of madness, according to the 1996 Oscar-winning biopic Shine.

It may be of some relief to Jordanian pianist Karim Said, the soloist with EUYO at Dubai Opera, that the second concerto was instead chosen.

Rather than difficulty, Rachmaninoff’s second symphony is best known for its length. Composed during a three-year stay in Dresden, Germany, it runs to almost an hour in unedited form. Carmen was again a fan, lifting from the introduction and third movement for his 1976 song, Never Gonna Fall in Love Again; trendier, more recent uses include the soundtrack to Alejandro G Inarritu’s Best Picture Oscar-winner Birdman (2014).

After fleeing revolutionary Russia in 1917 to settle in Beverly Hills, Rachmaninoff rarely composed again, correctly perceiving his open-hearted Romanticism to be out of sync with the 20th century’s wild musical revolutions. Instead, he devoted energy to a lucrative career as a concert pianist, continuing to perform many of his earlier works before giddy stateside audiences.

European Union Youth Orchestra
European Union Youth Orchestra

However, he had one more timeless masterpiece up his sleeve, in 1934 debuting and recording the first version of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – a single movement for piano and symphony orchestra that was as gloriously gorgeous as it was knowingly outdated and daringly showboating. A fitting career coda, perhaps; audiences might fancifully hope the EUYO dust off the closing third section as an encore at Dubai Opera.

EUYO perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 and Symphony No 2 at Dubai Opera on April 13; on April 12 the EUYO perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as well as works by Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov, both 8pm. From Dh125 via http://dubaiopera.com

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