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Classical Connection: A review of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's May 4 concert

Andrew Constantine conducted the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in its final Masterworks Series concert of the 2023-24 season on May 4, in impressive music by Sir William Walton and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The concert in the Purdue Fort Wayne Music Center began with the first symphony of the British composer and conductor Sir William Walton (1902-1983). The four-movement symphony, which is primarily in B-flat minor, was written between 1932 and 1935. Walton was said to be a slow-working, meticulous, and self-critical composer. In fact, due to growing interest in this important work, the first three movements were performed in 1934. When Walton completed the fourth and final movement the following year, the complete symphony was premiered on November 6, 1935, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Sir Hamilton Harty conducting.

Sir William Walton
Sir William Walton

From the very beginning, in the first movement, it is clear that Walton had produced a very dramatic and powerful work. The first movement is generally slow, but it builds and builds with increasing power, particularly as Walton adds more instruments. There are long-held bass notes and timpani rolls, reminding some of the symphonies of Sibelius, which Walton admired. The energy in this movement is relentless and a bit overwhelming. The Fort Wayne musicians were brilliant in this very challenging and intense music. Constantine said this movement can be emotionally and physically exhausting since it is a very difficult piece; fortunately, our performers were up to the task with its great demands.

The second movement is a scherzo and is marked “presto con malizia” or “very fast with malice.” It is quite energetic and animated with strong rhythms, “percussive outbursts,” and “angular off-beat fragmentary themes” in the words of Anthony Burton included with a Chandos recording of the work. This is not a particularly happy movement, instead we have strong reactions and outbursts that perhaps reflect the growing tensions of a time when peace was increasingly threatened by fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. I feel that this movement is a big contrast to the intense opening movement because it has so much energy. The Philharmonic certainly maintained the energy throughout the movement.

Walton eventually indicated that the third movement should be performed “at a moderate pace, with melancholy.” Indeed, much of the romantic movement in music displayed melancholy, particularly in the symphonies of Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Peter Tchaikovsky. While the movement is quite tonal, it is also very modern in terms of the 1930s. Anthony Burton described this movement as “characteristically bitter-sweet lyricism.” It is typically sustained and songlike, as well as troubled. There was some very fine playing by the strings with impressive contributions by the winds and brass.

As I noted before, Walton delayed writing the final movement. He was under pressure to complete his first symphony and, since he typically wrote slowly, it was a challenge for him to write the fourth movement, which is generally fast and ultimately majestic. While the symphony begins in B-flat minor, it shifts to B-flat major in the end. The shift from minor to major, of course, produces a very optimistic and triumphant sound. This movement is much like the composer’s film scores and coronation tunes, so it is quite upbeat compared to the rest of the symphony. It was an exuberant and ultimately joyful performance that resulted in an appreciative standing ovation from the audience.

After intermission, with the grand piano placed on the stage, Italian pianist and teacher Fabio Bidini (born June 11, 1968) returned to Fort Wayne to play Sergei Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. He had previously played the third piano concerto with the Philharmonic. He is a very handsome, charming, and witty man with a great command of the piano and he excels in romantic works. Constantine told the “Musically Speaking” preview audience that he has known Bidini for about 12 years, so they have worked together several times.

Fabio Bidini
Fabio Bidini

Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, which is primarily in C minor, represented a major “comeback” for Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). He had suffered from depression after the critical and popular failure of his first symphony on March 28, 1897, in Saint Petersburg with Alexander Glazunov conducting. Apparently, the orchestra was not fully prepared for a challenging and dissonant work that was finally accepted two years after Rachmaninoff’s death. Fortunately, Rachmaninoff was successfully treated for depression by psychiatrist Dr. Nikolai Dahl and he responded by writing his magnificent second piano concerto. Rachmaninoff dedicated the work to Dr. Dahl. The good news is that the concerto, premiered on November 9, 1901, with Rachmaninoff as soloist and Alexander Siloti conducting, was an astounding success.

The concerto begins with some intense, chromatic passages, first by the pianist and then the full orchestra, that lead to one of Rachmaninoff’s most famous and wonderful musical themes. Rachmaninoff specified a moderate tempo. Indeed, throughout the work this is a late romantic expression that is known for beautiful melodies. The concerto is, of course, very challenging for the soloist. It is known that Rachmaninoff had very large hands and he utilized them in this concerto, so for some pianists it is a real challenge. Judging from Rachmaninoff’s famous 1929 RCA Victor recording with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, he played this work with great feeling and intensity. Fibini and the Philharmonic also played intently in this performance and it was quite impressive. His concentration and virtuoso playing was amazing.

The second movement is to be played slow and sustained. It is very moving and lovely music. The main theme was used in 1975 in Eric Carmen’s song “All By Myself” and it is one of the most memorable of Rachmaninoff’s melodies. There is a certain sadness in the music, probably reflecting what Rachmaninoff had gone through after his first symphony was rejected. The lyricism here really came through in Bidini’s playing and by the orchestra as well. The flute solo was particularly good. This slow movement leads directly to the third and final movement.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff

The third movement is intended to be a fast scherzo-like piece. It is notable for the way Rachmaninoff builds it steadily. The second theme was adapted for the song “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” introduced by Frank Sinatra in 1945. As Rachmaninoff would later do in the end of his third concerto, this concerto ends with a quick four-note statement that is basically his musical signature: “Rach-man-i-noff.” It is impressive how Rachmaninoff builds this final movement and certainly the Philharmonic’s performance was quite noteworthy and memorable. There were real “fireworks” in Bidini’s playing, which were enhanced by some excellent work by the percussionists. There was an immediate standing ovation and great, sustained cheers. Undoubtedly, many hoped Bidini might play an encore and I heard some audible sighs when he and Constantine finally left the stage after repeated curtain calls; Bidini had said at the “Musically Speaking” preview that, due to the physical demands of the concerto, he would NOT play an encore.

The Philharmonic’s Masterworks Series for 2024-25 is set to open on October 5 at 7:30 p.m. in the Purdue Fort Wayne Music Center with Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien,” Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kije” suite from his film score; and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor.

Rob Nylund is the host of WBOI's Classical Connection every Saturday evening from 6 to 8 p.m.