Crowd-pleasers by Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff are on the bill
By Peter Alexander
Scheherazade is in the air.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant orchestral showpiece has never been more popular anywhere than it seems to be in Boulder right now. The Boulder Philharmonic played it on their season-opening concert. The CU Symphony has it in their plans for the season. It was performed at the Colorado Music Festival as recently as 2013.
And Saturday the Longmont Symphony Orchestra and conductor Robert Olson—not in Boulder but an easy drive up the Diagonal—perform Scheherazade on a program titled “Romantic Russia” (7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 in Longmont’s Vance Brand Civic Auditorium).
To complete the Romantic—and impressively virtuosic—program of Russian music, Colorado’s Katie Mahan will be the soloist with the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s daunting Third Piano Concerto.
Like most pieces, Scheherazade goes in and out of favor with orchestras for no apparent reason, but for Olson, it is always a great piece to program. “From where I’ve stood, Scheherazade is always a big winner,” he says.
“It’s (a), incredibly popular with audiences, for all the obvious reasons, and (b), it’s a showpiece for orchestras. Usually, orchestras don’t like to play big audience pieces too much, but I think this one they do.”
One reason Scheherazade has remained popular is that Rimsky-Korsakov wrote extravagantly colorful music to describe “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” a “Festival at Baghdad” and the love of “The Young Prince and the Young Princess.” It ends with a storm at sea and a shipwreck, all portrayed in music of great brilliance and orchestral virtuosity.
The Longmont Symphony, which Olson says stands on the boundary between community orchestra and regional orchestra, is more eager to tackle the big favorites than some of the larger orchestras that may have played them dozens of times before. In the case of Scheherazade, most of the players know the music well, even if they don’t have many opportunities to perform it.
“I would guess that there must be at least a half a dozen of the instruments that when they take an orchestral audition, one of the biggest excerpts (they are asked to play) will be out of this piece,” he explains. “For most of the players, it’s a great piece. And it’s well within our reach.”
Olson says that part of the fascination, and the challenge, of playing Scheherazade comes from the story that the music tells. The heroine, you may recall, has to entertain her cruel husband or she will be beheaded. To stay alive, she tells 1001 fantastic tales for 1001 nights.
“In our first rehearsal, I just stopped and said, ‘Look, we all know the story,’” he says. “The minute she bores this guy, her head’s off, so you can never play the same statement twice. If you play it the same twice, you’re dead!”
The Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto is one of the great war horses of the pianist’s repertoire, and it is also a piece that Olson enjoys conducting. “I’ve never done his Fourth (Concerto), so I don’t know it,” he says. “But of the big three (concertos by Rachmaninoff), this is my favorite.”
(In an interesting historical note, considering that Olson is acclaimed for conducting Mahler and founding the Colorado Mahlerfest, Rachmaninoff played his Third Concerto with the New York Philharmonic on Jan. 16, 1910. The conductor was Gustav Mahler.)
The extensive rubato that Rachmaninoff calls for—places where the soloist can slow down to extend phrases, or speed up to hurry ahead—pose a challenge to the conductor and players to keep together. Otherwise, Olson does not think the concerto is hard for the orchestra to play. “From a technical standpoint the concerto is not unusually difficult,” he says.
The same cannot be said of the piano part, which is considered one of the great virtuoso challenges for any pianist. Rachmaninoff, a pianist of prodigious technical abilities, wrote the concerto in Russia in 1909 and premiered it himself later that year in New York. But for years, few other pianists were willing to tackle its technical demands. The dedicatee, Josef Hoffman, never played it in public. Only in the 1930s, when the fearless virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz took it up, did it become popular.
The soloist in Longmont, Katie Mahan, is a Denver native who has appeared with orchestras and won acclaim around the world, in addition to many performances from Cheyenne to Colorado Springs along the I-25 corridor. In one of those performances a few years ago, she played the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with the Timberline Symphony—now the Boulder Symphony—in Niwot.
Olson says he is looking forward to working with Mahan “I’ve never met her, nor have I heard her,” he says. However, “she comes with a really good reputation from everyone I know who knows her. I’m excited because of the word of mouth.”
If you already know and love classical music, this program gives you the opportunity to hear some familiar and well loved music. If you don’t, so much the better: you can be wowed by these brilliant and popular showpieces for the first time.
Just don’t expect to hear anything the same way twice.
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Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Robert Olson, conductor
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3
Katie Mahan, piano
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15
Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont