The National Philharmonic kicks off the new year with three distinct programs, all of them conveying a sense of love or ardor perfectly in tune with a certain upcoming minor holiday, starting with a toast to one of the most Romantic composers of them all.
The year 2023 marks the 150th anniversary of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s birth, and the NatPhil will mark the occasion by presenting two of his quintessential works, starting with his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Closely resembling a piano concerto, Rhapsody is Rachmaninoff’s twist on the thrilling Caprice No. 24 in A minor, the final in a series of 24 Caprices for solo violin by Niccolo Paganini. Both Paganini’s original for violin and Rachmaninoff’s transcription for piano are considered among the most technically demanding pieces ever written for their particular instruments, given the speed, rapid shifts, and large leaps in scale.
On that score, it’s fascinating to learn that Rachmaninoff, touted as one of the finest pianists of his day, developed such a severe case of performance anxiety leading up to the work’s 1934 premiere, for which he also served as featured pianist, he decided to try steadying his nerves by downing a shot of alcohol.
In the end, the alcohol did the trick. And because the performance, with the Philadelphia Orchestra at The Lyric in Baltimore, was deemed a resounding success, he repeated the custom for every subsequent performance. He even took to calling Rhapsody the “Crème de Menthe Variation,” referring to his shot of choice.
No word on whether Claire Huangci will honor the Crème de Menthe tradition when she joins the philharmonic as featured soloist to perform the roughly 24-minute-long piece from the stage in the organization’s home venue, Strathmore’s Music Center.
The program, on Friday, Feb. 3, at 7:30 p.m., also salutes Rachmaninoff with a performance of his Symphony No. 2 in E minor, an intense piece from early in the Russian-American composer’s career, known for its memorable emotionally driven melodies.
The following weekend, the organization partners with the Mexican Cultural Institute for the NatPhil Chamber Series program Poetry in Music, featuring compositions either inspired by or featuring poetry.
As curated by Concertmaster Laura Colgate, this concert, set for Sunday, Feb. 12, at 3 p.m., at the Mexican Cultural Institute (2829 16th St. NW), is bookended by “Dickinson Songs” created by Lori Laitman — two performed at the start and four to end the program — plus To Cast a Shadow Again, a work by Eric Ewazen featuring poetry by Katherine Gekker, Chasing the Moon Down by Carson Cooman also with poetry by Gekker, and “Emily!” by Barbara Harbach — based on poems by you-know-who.
A few days before the turn of March, the philharmonic will return home for the latest An Evening of Chopin recital with Brian Ganz. The popular pianist around town and world-renowned instrumentalist continues his multi-year “Extreme Chopin” quest to become the world’s first to play every note ever written for piano by Frédéric Chopin — more than 250 compositions in all.
Violinist Laura Colgate, the orchestra’s concertmaster, and Carter Brey, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, will join Ganz at his 13th all-Chopin recital, Saturday, Feb. 25, at 8 p.m. The program includes Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major for Cello and Piano, Trio in G minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Grand Duo Concertant in E major for Cello and Piano on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, and Sonata for Cello & Piano in G minor.
Tickets are $19 to $99 for each of the two programs at Strathmore. The NatPhil Chamber Series is pay-what-you-can. Visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org or call 301-493-9283.
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