Every picture tells a story, and the same seems to be true of every piece of music. At least, I am inclined to think so, especially after the PSO concert this past weekend.
It was an evening of storytelling, in fact. My mom and I arrived early Friday for the pre-concert discussion between Jim Cunningham and composer Chris Theophanidis, in which they talked about how Theophanidis worked with violinist Sarah Chang to create the Concerto for Violin & Orchestra that we would hear premiered that evening.
Each movement turned out to have its own story: the first coming from an experience the composer had standing on a rock overlooking the city of Monte Carlo; the second from the day he first held his daughter and later when she reacted to hearing a particular chord he played on piano; and the third from what I might call a composerly thought process of how to complete the first two movements and create a showpiece for Chang as soloist.
The first musical work we heard that evening, The Chairman Dances, was perhaps the most explicit piece of musical storytelling of the evening. Not only is it an extension of an opera, but it seems to have a plot of its own. My fellow blogger Louis captured this very nicely.
After intermission, we wrapped the evening with a lush bit of musical storytelling indeed, in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.
Before this concert, the only bit of Rachmaninoff I could claim familiarity with was the Piano Concerto No. 2, which is featured in the play The Seven-Year Itch and the Marilyn Monroe movie of the same name. In a dream sequence in that movie, Monroe’s character says that hearing Rachmaninoff makes her go to pieces. "It shakes me. It quakes me. It makes me feel goose-pimply all over."
The Symphony No. 2 is known less for making people goose-pimply and more for being wildly popular. It’s lyrical and elegant, beautifully melodic. So melodic, in fact, that a song writer in the 1970s named Eric Carmen took the theme from the third movement and turned it into the pop song "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again." If you listened to a lot of 70s pop radio, this means that you can’t help but hear those lyrics during that movement.
Fortunately, the symphony is wonderful and rich enough to overcome this distraction. It builds throughout on a motive introduced at the start of the first movement.
Performed by the PSO under the direction of the delightful guest conductor Andris Nelsons, it feels like an epic story, with heroes facing challenges, comic foils, and a love that conquers all. Who needs movies with music like this?