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Tuesday, 25 February 2014 00:25

Symphony Preview: Theme and Variations Variations + Video

Rachmaninoff at the piano, circa 1900 Rachmaninoff at the piano, circa 1900
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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This weekend at the symphony, BBC Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena is on the podium for a series of variations on the theme of the theme and variations. Which is not as confusing as it looks. All three of the works on the program are examples of the "theme and variations" form, in which a single melodic thread is used to spin a complex tapestry of music.

Alberto Ginastera

The form has been a favorite of composers for centuries, from the Renaissance right up to the present day. "Beethoven was especially fond of it," writes Paul Schiavo in his program notes, "and cultivated it brilliantly. But Handel, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Copland, Schoenberg, and many other composers used it profitably." The three examples on this weekend's program are all by composers who wrote in the 20th century and cover a span of over fifty years, from 1898 to 1953.

The most recent work is the one that opens the concerts, the "Variaciones concertantes," op. 23 by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. It takes the conventional theme and variations form and combines it with a concept that emerged mainly in the 20th century, the "concerto for orchestra"—a work in which each section of the ensemble gets an opportunity to take the spotlight. Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" (which the symphony did just last month, under Andrés Orozco-Estrada) is probably the most famous example. Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" is another.

Rachmaninoff in
California, 1919

Ginastera adds a bit of whimsy by giving each variation a descriptive title: " Variazione giocosa per Flauto" ("Playful variation for flute"), "Variazione drammatica per Viola" ("Dramatic variation for viola"), "Variazione in modo di Moto perpetua per Violino" ("Variation in perpetual motion style for violin"), and so on. "These variations have a subjective Argentine character," writes the composer in his notes for the Boosey and Hawkes edition of the score. "Instead of using folkloristic material, I try to achieve an Argentine atmosphere through the employment of my own thematic and rhythmic elements...All the instruments of the orchestra are treated soloistically. Some variations belong to the decorative, ornamental or elaborative type, others are written in the contemporary manner of metamorphosis, which consists of taking elements of the main theme and evolving from it new material." Should be a good workout for our "orchestra of virtuosos."

Next is one of the great virtuoso showpieces of the twentieth century, Rachmaninoff's flashy "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" from 1934. The Russian expatriate was one of the previous century's great virtuoso pianists and the "Rhapsody" served him well as he toured America and Europe. He played solo role in the premiere performance, of course—in Baltimore, Maryland, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by another giant of 20th-century music, Leopold Stokowski.

The piece is a sort of mini-concerto, consisting of 24 variations on (appropriately) the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's "Caprices" for solo violin – a tune that has proved irresistible for composers from Liszt to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Listen for the quote of the Latin plainchant "Dies Irae" (a theme that crops up often on Rachmaninoff's music) about a third of the way through and note the extreme technical difficulty of the last variation. Even Rachmaninoff was said to have found it scary.

Benedetto Lupo

That brings us to the soloist, who appears to be well equipped to perform that scary music. Although Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo's career got a major shot in the arm when he took the bronze (now the crystal) medal at the 1989 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (where technical expertise is more or less a given), he was already a fairly seasoned pianist at the time, with nearly twenty concertos in his repertoire. By now he has played with prominent orchestras worldwide and has been a frequent recitalist as well. His recordings include the complete works for piano and orchestra by Robert Schumann as well as the "Concerto Soirée" by his mentor, the film composer Nino Rota. "He currently teaches at the Nino Rota Conservatory in Monopoli, Italy," according to the official biography at his agent's web site, "has several students who are enjoying a notable performing career, gives master classes worldwide and has been invited to be a jury member in several renowned international piano competitions."

Elgar, circa 1900

The evening concludes with a work that could probably be classed as one of Edward Elgar's greatest hits, the “Enigma Variations” from 1989-99. Effectively a musical family album, the fourteen variations are vivid little sound portraits of Elgar, his wife, and his friends. Even a pet bulldog puts in an appearance in a comical variation (number 11) that portrays the dog tumbling down a grassy bank into the river Wye and then, according to the composer, "paddling up stream to find a landing place (bars 2 and 3) and his rejoicing bark on landing (second half of bar 5."

The “Enigma” of the title, according to Elgar, refers to “another and larger theme” which is “not played”. The composer never revealed what that theme might be and speculation has been lively ("most convincingly Auld Lang Syne," according to the late British musicologist Robin Golding) but I'm inclined to go along with the school of thought that the “theme” to which Elgar referred wasn't musical at all but rather the common thread of friendship and good humor that pervades the music.

Juanjo Mena

A native of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital city of the province of lava and of the autonomous community of the Basque Country in northern Spain, guest conductor Mena has led orchestras throughout Europe. Here in the USA he has conducted in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Houston and Pittsburgh. This is his first appearance with the St. Louis Symphony, though, so it will be interesting to see what he does with this material. His Richard Strauss performances got enthusiastic reviews in Britain and his Mozart 40th with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was lavishly praised by the L.A. Times. Similar acclaim was heaped on his Shubert 9th with the Oslo Philharmonic. So he certainly comes highly recommended.

The essentials: Juanjo Mena conducts the St. Louis Symphony, with pianist Benedetto Lupo, in Alberto Ginastera's "Variaciones concertantes," Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," and Elgar's "Enigma Variations (Variations on an Original Theme)" Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, February 28-March 2, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and streaming from the station web site. But, of course, it 's best heard live.

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