Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Pianist Kirill Gerstein

Program Listing

MONDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2022, 7:30 PM

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Sponsored by The Holzman Family

David Danzmayr, Conductor
Kirill Gerstein, Piano

Tania León

Stride (West-coast premiere and Oregon Symphony co-commission)

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Concerto No. 2 in C Minor for Piano And Orchestra, Op. 18
Adagio sostenuto
Allegro scherzando
Kirill Gerstein

Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131
Andante espressivo


This performance is being recorded for broadcast on All Classical Portland. The broadcast will air on January 12, 2023 on 89.9 FM in Portland, and worldwide at allclassical.org.


Program Notes

Tania León: Stride (West Coast premiere)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131

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Tania León
b. 1943

Stride (West Coast premiere)

Work composed: 2020. Co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony and the New York Philharmonic as part of Project 19, an initiative marking the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. “In honor of Susan B. Anthony. Dedicated to the visionaries Deborah Borda and Jaap van Zweden.”
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets in B-flat, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bongos, crotales, small and medium cymbals, djembe, roto-toms, sand blocks, sizzle cymbal, tambourine, timbales,  tubular bells, tom-toms, vibraphone, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 15 minutes

Cuban-born American composer/conductor/educator/advocate Tania León’s music is a unique fusion of her Afro-Cuban roots with cosmopolitan avant-garde idioms. Since coming to the United States in 1967, León has helped shape America’s contemporary performing arts landscape as a founding member and first music director of Dance Theater of Harlem, and as a noted conductor and composer. From 1993 to 1997, León served as New Music advisor to the New York Philharmonic; she also served as Latin American Music advisor to the American Composers Orchestra until 2001. More recently, León founded and currently serves as the artistic director of Composers Now, a nonprofit that celebrates the diversity of composers in New York City and honors their contributions to the cultural fabric of society.

In 2021, León won the Pulitzer Prize for Stride, which the Pulitzer jury described as “a musical journey full of surprise, with powerful brass and rhythmic motifs that incorporate Black music traditions from the US and the Caribbean into a Western orchestral fabric.” In July 2022, León was named a recipient of the 45th Annual Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime artistic achievements.

“When the New York Philharmonic reached out to me about writing for this project celebrating the 19th Amendment, I confess I only knew about it generally,” writes León in her program note for Stride. “I started doing research, reading Susan B. Anthony’s biography, her statements. It was tremendous to see the inner force that she had. Then I started looking for a title before starting the piece – not the way I usually do it. The word ‘stride’ reflected how I imagined her way of not taking ‘no’ for an answer. She kept pushing and pushing and moving forward, walking with firm steps until she got the whole thing done. That is precisely what I mean by Stride.

Stride has some of what, to me, are American musical influences, or at least American musical connotations. For example, there is a section where you can hear the horns with the wah-wah plunger, reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, getting that growl. It doesn’t have to be indicative of any particular skin tone; it has to do with the American spirit.

“When I discovered American music, Louis Armstrong actually was the first sound that struck me. When I moved here, the only composers I knew anything about were Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. The night I arrived at Kennedy Airport, I was picked up by a Cuban couple from the Bronx, who allowed me to stay on their sofa. I looked at the stairs outside of their building, and I started crying “Maria!” They were confused, and I explained that in Cuba I’d heard the song by Leonard Bernstein. I later worked with Bernstein, and we were very close in his later years. When I first arrived here I couldn’t speak English ... but I knew how to say ‘Maria.’”


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

Work composed: 1900-01, dedicated to Monsieur N. Dahl.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor James Feddeck led the Oregon Symphony and pianist Marc-André Hamelin on February 23-25, 2019
Instrumentation: Solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals and strings.
Estimated duration: 33 minutes

In 1900, Sergei Rachmaninoff was at low ebb, professionally and emotionally. His Symphony No. 1 had premiered to dismal reviews three years earlier, triggering a paralyzing depression that plagued Rachmaninoff off and on throughout his life.

As Rachmaninoff recounted in his Memoirs: “I did nothing and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent lying on a couch and sighing over my ruined life.” In desperation, Rachmaninoff sought help from a hypnotist, Dr. Nicolai Dahl, who was also an amateur string player. Dahl, using hypnotic techniques, would plant encouraging thoughts about writing the concerto in Rachmaninoff’s head during their sessions.

In Rachmaninoff’s Recollections, the composer recounts, “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in my armchair in Dr. Dahl’s study, ‘You will begin to write your concerto. ... You will work with great facility. ... The concerto will be of excellent quality ...’ It was always the same, without interruption. Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me.”

With Dahl’s help, Rachmaninoff was able to complete the concerto. It became an instant success, and, a year later, when the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor was published, Rachmaninoff dedicated it to “Monsieur N. Dahl.”

The concerto opens with a series of chords by the soloist that grow in volume and intensity. Interestingly for a piano concerto, the solo part is more of an accompaniment until the second theme, one of Rachmaninoff’s most familiar and beloved, appears. The movement continues with a rousing march in the piano, which dissolves into a solo horn intoning the second theme. The opening intensity returns for a brief, fiery conclusion.

The sensual beauty of the Adagio sostenuto creates an atmosphere of enchanted otherworldliness. The primary melody is heard first in the clarinet and flute, with the piano accompanying. The soloist then takes up the melody, one of serene, unabashed romanticism, and develops it, with accompanying woodwinds and strings.

For the Allegro scherzando, the lower instruments murmur a brief introduction to the soloist’s opening showy cadenza, which segues into the staccato pulsing rhythm of the first theme. The lyrical second theme, for violas and solo oboe, is a marked contrast. The two themes vie for prominence as the mood of this movement shifts abruptly from jittery agitation to ecstatic rhapsody. Rachmaninoff concludes with a pull-out-all-the-stops ending featuring the rhapsodic theme.


Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131

Work composed: 1951-52
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, wood blocks, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 32 minutes 

For the last five years of his life, Sergei Prokofiev grappled with failing health, grinding poverty, and the loss of his artistic reputation (along with the banning of his music), thanks to one of Joseph Stalin’s cultural purges in 1948 (Prokofiev was not actually the direct target of Stalin’s ire; he just happened to be one of the artists caught up in the eradication that resulted from Stalin’s paroxysm of cultural pique). In such circumstances, Prokofiev decided to try writing something that would win him the Stalin Prize, which came with a much-needed first-prize purse of 100,000 rubles. Accordingly, he set to work on a symphony intended for the Soviet Children’s Radio Division.

Throughout his life Prokofiev had written several works for young listeners; his beloved Peter and the Wolf is the best-known example. During World War II, Prokofiev also composed a ballet based on Cinderella. He had a penchant for fairy tells and fantasy; both offered a welcome escape from the terrors of WWII and the constant anxiety of living under the thumb of an oppressive culture. Symphony No. 7 has something of this fairy tale flavor about it. The music evokes nostalgia, of looking back to simpler times; the primary theme of the Moderato, although it begins in a minor key (not the most cheerful or child-friendly music), sets the scene in much the way a fairy tale begins with the phrase, “Once upon a time…” The second theme, for winds and glockenspiel, has a jaunty bounce. The two themes alternate in a swirling collage, and the movement ends with the ticking of glockenspiel and xylophone, a nod to a nostalgia for times past. The graceful waltzing Allegretto contains hints of anxiety, moments of frivolity, abrupt changes of mood, and the timbral expressiveness characteristic of Prokofiev’s music. The languid melody of the Andante espressivo has a calming effect, like a parent smoothing a child’s brow. In the closing Vivace, Prokofiev unleashes the unbridled energy of children at play. This seems like a proper ending for music aimed at children, but just before the conclusion, the horseplay stops, and Prokofiev returns to music from the first movement. In a hush, the music ends as softly as it began.

Samuil Samosud, who conducted the premiere, suggested Prokofiev write a more up-tempo ending instead of his original version; apparently Samosud thought a happier ending would boost Prokofiev’s chances of winning first place in the Stalin Prize competition. Against his artistic judgment, but because he desperately needed the money, Prokofiev agreed, but asked Samosud to make sure the score was published with Prokofiev’s original ending: “Slava, you will live much longer than I, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.” Ultimately, the score was published with the second ending, despite Prokofiev’s wishes. Some orchestras perform it with the second ending, but most honor Prokofiev’s preference for the first ending.

© Elizabeth Schwartz