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Rach out: SLSO concludes with two-weekend Rachmaninoff fest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 26, 2012 - It is becoming harder and harder today to remain blissfully — or more aptly, woefully — ignorant when it comes to classical music, even for people who prefer Clint Eastwood films to those of Geoffrey Rush.

Especially with the advent of the iPod, Pandora and satellite music stations, it seems everyone has a soundtrack playing out her life. No need to bother with fame when your iPod turns your kitchen into an Italian bistro and Pandora offers any cowgirl her own showdown at work.

So why attend concerts at all? Why not leave the concerto in your ear or on your phone?

Because there is nothing like a live performance.

As St. Louis Symphony Orchestra President Fred Bronstein points out, what may have become just this side of elevator music takes on a whole new thrilling life when actual humans take up an instrument and make it truly sing.

“Never in history have people had as much accessibility” to music, he said. “You can download and carry it anywhere.  And that’s a good thing because it creates interest.”

And interest peaks curiosity, which in turn develops desire to experience authentic performance, he said.

“There is just nothing as exciting as a real-time, live performance,” Bronstein said. “It is transformative.”

Part of the goal of the symphony is to make the experience more than memorable, he said. Ultimately, the goal centers on growth, appreciation and understanding, and that in Bronstein’s view is the magic of live music: People will leave the concert different than when they arrived.

“We are in the business of transporting people,” Bronstein noted. "That is what makes it so powerful.”

And that is just what audiences will encounter as the symphony closes its season.

For the next two weekends, few places in town will rival Powell Hall for sound and fury as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra offers none other than Rachfest, April 27-29 and May 4-6, as its season finale.

A blitzkrieg of piano concerts, Rachfest centers on the dynamic and all-encompassing works of piano composer extraordinaire, Sergei Rachmaninoff. 

“These are works that are pinnacles of piano writing and people always think of the third and how fiendishly difficult it is,” Bronstein said. “But it is as much beautiful, as it is challenging.”

In the first weekend, the concerts feature Piano Concerto No. 1 (Fri., April 27) and Piano Concerto No. 2 (Sat.-Sun., April 28-29), along with complimentary pieces, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Skazka and Dmitri Shostakovic’s Symphony No. 1.

The following weekend concludes Rachfest and the symphony’s season with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Ludwig von Beethoven’s dramatic Symphony No. 5.

The two-week fest gives concert-goers the chance to see Australian pianist Stephen Hough take up the challenging, if not grueling, pieces of ironically melodious and spectacular music. And it also offers the opportunity to see and hear some of the greatest pieces of music ever written for the piano performed live.

What helps make these last concerts so outstanding is the musicians themselves and what they bring to the pieces they play. In Hough’s case, Bronstein said,  few have reached the same level of mastery of the work.

“Without question, first you have to get it right on the stage,” he said. “The right pianist — these pieces are particularly difficult to play well, and Stephen does an amazing job.”

From his experience, Bronstein knows Hough can meet this challenge with flare and grace. He became familiar with the pianist and his performance style in Houston. There, Bronstein learned that Hough put his own signature on the concertos he performs, but also pays homage to Rachmaninoff, playing the piece as it was written to be performed. 

So is Hough stressed? Not at all.

In fact, he is delighted. In a tweet, he expressed his anticipation with pure glee: “I'm looking forward so much to my two weeks with you. Just sorting out my socks and teabags ... :-)”

And that is the exciting element of the performance, the challenge. The sheer complexity of these concertos is what makes watching a live concert so exciting, Bronstein notes.

“Then it is particularly thrilling when it is live,” he said. “It is the highlight of experiencing the music because it is different, and the experience cannot be replicated.”

True enough, but the music can, and has. For those who think they do not know Rachmaninoff and his music think again.

In fact, think Geoffrey Rush in "Shine," a film in which he plays pianist David Helfgott struggling to master the Rach 3. Or Clint Eastwood. That’s right, Eastwood. But forget about "Grand Torino" or "Unforgiven."

Think instead, "Here After," which Eastwood directed. And listen to the soundtrack.

Who knew? Even Dirty Harry likes classical.