Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Program Listing

Saturday, may 11, 2024, 7:30 PM
SUNDAY, May 12, 2024, 2 PM
MONDAY, May 13, 2024, 7:30 PM

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 Sponsored by Renée Holzman


Delyana Lazarova, Conductor  
Simon Trpčeski, Piano

Dobrinka Tabakova

Timber & Steel

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Simon Trpčeski
Antonin Dvořák
Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70
Allegro maestoso 
Poco adagio
Scherzo: Vivace 

Finale: Allegro

Conducted one hour before each performance, the Concert Conversation will feature Guest Conductor Delyana Lazarova, Oregon Symphony Bassist Mariya-Andoniya Andonova, and Raúl Gómez-Rojas, host of All Classical Radio.

Program Notes

Timber & Steel
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70

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Dobrinka Tabakova
b. 1980

Timber and Steel: perpetuum mobile for symphony orchestra

Work composed: 2019
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass drum, crash cymbal, crotales, log drums, 2 marimbas, snare drum, 3 suspended cymbals, tam-tam, temple blocks, tom toms, vibraphone, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 10 minutes

Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova writes music with ‘glowing tonal harmonies and grand, sweeping gestures [which] convey a huge emotional depth’ (The Strad). Her debut album, String Paths, on ECM Records, was nominated for a Grammy in 2014. In a 2019 interview, Tabakova described “the core of my reason for composing – melodies, textures, and layers of materials, a desire to connect and communicate, and an interest in shaping time though sound.”

During her composer-in-residency with the BBC Proms Orchestra, Tabakova wrote an homage to conductor Sir Henry Wood. “Celebrating 150 years since Proms founder Henry Wood’s birth, the title of this piece includes the nickname by which the beloved figure was known among Proms audiences and musicians – ‘Timber,’” Tabakova explains. “As I was contemplating what Henry Wood would have made of the world today, it also made me think of the world that he would have found himself in on his arrival in 1869. I kept coming back to the great industrialization over the century that preceded Wood’s birth. Machines freed up time, which people could now invest in learning about the world, educating themselves, enjoying cultural activities – an opportunity, which, ultimately, inspired the concept of the Proms concerts.

“Throughout the piece I wished to create a sense of drive, movement, progress … this relentless energy is what motivated my new work. The title also alludes to the founding elements of industrialization and, helpfully, has a connection to the materials found most broadly among orchestral instruments themselves – woods and metals. These two sound worlds are constantly being pitted against each other, beginning with the woody marimbas, which lay the foundations for brass sparks. A series of musical ‘cells’ slot together throughout the piece – many of these cells carry material made up of the musical equivalent of Henry Wood’s name and the title of the work – some examples are the opening figure in the marimbas or the jagged first full orchestra outburst.

“As well as being an accomplished painter, carpentry was among Henry Wood’s various hobbies, and I would hope that he would have enjoyed the jigsaw of ideas which form the spine of my humble homage to a great figure in British musical life.”


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

Work composed: Rachmaninoff wrote his Rhapsody in six weeks, from July 3 – August 18, 1934, while staying at his villa in Switzerland.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance
: Solo piano, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, harp, and strings.
Estimated duration: 23 minutes

Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934, seven years before his death. Based on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, this melody has inspired variations from a number of other composers, including Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Witold Lutosławski.

Audiences immediately responded to the Rhapsody’s technical virtuosity and unabashed romanticism, but critics were far less enthusiastic. One described it as “trite to the verge of cheapness,” while another opined, “[it is] just a concert piece for the composer’s playing, and the day for that sort of thing is past.” The New Yorker critic was especially harsh, denigrating both music and audience: “The Rhapsody isn’t philosophical, significant, or even artistic. It is something for audiences.” Despite the condescending reviews, the Rhapsody became an instant hit on the concert circuit, and remains one of the most popular works for piano and orchestra.

The Rhapsody can be organized into the conventional outline of a piano concerto, with the first ten variations (some under 20 seconds) corresponding to a first movement. These ten variations stay very close to Paganini’s theme and remain in the key of A minor, each one building on the excitement and tension of its predecessor. Variation 11 transitions to the slow “second movement” (variations 12-18). In keeping with the middle movement of a concerto, the harmony shifts from A minor and wanders through several other keys until it arrives at the famous 18th variation in D-flat major, which was featured in the 1993 hit movie Groundhog Day. “This one,” Rachmaninoff shrewdly commented, “is for my agent.” While this variation seems unrelated to the fundamental melody, Rachmaninoff constructed it by simply inverting Paganini’s original theme. The final six variations make up the third movement and feature Paganini’s opening theme as the Rhapsody builds to its fiery climax.


Antonín Dvořák

Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70

Work composed: December 13, 1884 – March 17, 1885, in Prague. Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in London. Dvořák revised the second movement after the premiere. The revised version, heard today, was first performed on November 29, 1885, in Prague’s Rudolfinum Concert Hall.
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Estimated duration: 38 minutes

Some artists create their best works under stress. In 1884, Antonín Dvořák, feeling pressure from several fronts, both personal and professional, managed to write what many have called his greatest symphony, outshining even the “New World.”

Late in 1882, Dvořák’s mother Anna died. Dvořák, who had been devoted to her, was devastated by the loss. In addition, he was also saddened by the plight of his countryman and colleague Bedřich Smetana, whose increasingly erratic behavior, caused by an advanced case of untreated syphilis, led to his mental collapse and death. These personal griefs took an emotional toll; at the same time, Dvořák was under professional pressure of a happier kind: The Royal Philharmonic Society of London bestowed an honorary membership on Dvořák, which included a commission to write and conduct a new symphony.

“Now I am occupied by my new symphony for London, and wherever I go I have nothing else in mind but my work, which must be such as to make a stir in the world and God grant that it may!” wrote Dvořák to his friend, Judge Antonín Rus. The expectations Dvořák laid on his own shoulders, to write a symphony that would “make a stir,” were specifically inspired by Johannes Brahms’ Third Symphony. Dvořák had recently heard it performed in Berlin, and wanted to write a symphony of his own that would measure up to Brahms’s. Brahms was both friend and mentor to Dvořák, and the Czech composer wanted to match, if not exceed, Brahms’ expectations of him as a symphonist. In an 1885 letter to his publisher Fritz Simrock, Dvořák wrote, “I want to justify Brahms’ words to me when he said, ‘I imagine your symphony will be quite unlike this one [the Symphony No. 6].’ There shall be no grounds for thinking he was wrong.”

The public, too, eagerly awaited Dvořák’s latest symphony, as did the musicians of the London Philharmonic. According to annotator Jane Vial Jaffe, the orchestra began rehearsing the first movement before Dvořák had finished writing the last. Dvořák was gratified by the enthusiasm that greeted him and his symphony when he conducted the premiere in London. However, Dvořák was even more pleased by the reception the symphony received when Hans von Bülow conducted it with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1889. Dvořák attached von Bülow’s picture to the title page of his manuscript and wrote beneath it, “Glory be to you! You brought this work to life!”

Dvořák, a lifelong trainspotter, got the idea for the opening theme while standing on a train platform at the Prague Railroad Station. For the scherzo, Dvořák employs the rhythms of a Czech dance, the furiant. Overall, the music of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 displays a cohesion of theme and harmony that pays direct homage to Brahms. While there are no surviving documents indicating Brahms’ opinion of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, it is hard to imagine he would not have been pleased and impressed by this masterful opus.


© Elizabeth Schwartz