For many of our classical music fans, the program (or pieces performed at a concert) is often of equal importance as the artists performing it. When Garrick Ohlsson and Kirill Gerstein, two generational talents, join forces to perform a rare piano duo recital, they bring their skills to a particularly interesting set of works by Ravel, Busoni, Rachmaninoff and Adès.
Jonathan Minnick, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis, wrote the program notes for this upcoming performance, which we have excerpted here.
Powder Her Face Suite
Powder Her Face centers around Margaret Campbell, the “Dirty”Duchess of Argyll, and her scandalous and sensational adventures during the 1960s while married to Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll. Adès’s compositional style in Powder Her Face is eclectic, distancing itself from the orchestral sound typically expected of operatic music ... offering a jazzy, almost burlesque music mixed with the styles of Britten, Weill, Stravinsky ... a perfect combination for this high-camp setting.
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
Symphonic Dances, completed in 1940, is Rachmaninoff’s last major symphonic composition. Rachmaninoff premiered the two piano arrangements (which were written simultaneously with the orchestral arrangement) at a private party in Beverly Hills in 1942, accompanied by his neighbor and friend Vladimir Horowitz. The pair enjoyed each other's company during Rachmaninoff’s final years, frequently visiting one another to play duets and socialize with the many European composers who found a new home in the Los Angeles area after escaping the Nazi Reign and political turmoil.
Fantasia Contrappuntistica, BV 256
Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica is a tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Busoni’s twelve-section fantasy includes four fugues and three variations fashioned similarly to Bach’s style, along with a chorale, cadenza, and other forms popular during Bach’s time. Busoni’s masterpiece for piano is incredibly difficult for the performers and the instrument, stretching both to their limits and testing the boundaries of performance practice of the period, confirming that this exercise in “pushing the limits” was indeed a hallmark of Busoni’s musical style.
La valse takes audiences on an adventure through a series of waltzes, each with its own character. Some, like the opening waltz, are light and tranquil, others jubilant, joyful, and bright. The meaning and purpose of La valse has been widely debated by critics and scholars since its premiere. In a letter he wrote in 1922, Ravel defended against those who believed La valse was related to the events of World War I:
“While some discover an attempt at parody, indeed caricature, others categorically see a tragic allusion in it—the end of the Second Empire, the situation in Vienna after the war ... This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion ... But one should see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.”