News & Features » Miscellany

In the Richmond Symphony's season opener, guest pianist Tzimon Barto tackles the musical equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest

Rocky III

Richmond Symphony with Tzimon Barto
Carpenter Center
Sept. 18 and 20

Parents who ferry their children back and forth to piano lessons week after week, year after year, wondering "Why? Why?" should hire baby sitters and circle Sept. 18 and 20 on their calendars. Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto — the granddaddy of them all — is here. Musicians call it "Rocky III." Conquering it is the pianist's answer to winning the Olympic gold medal.

If the title sounds familiar, yes, this is the notoriously impossible piano concerto that allegedly sent David Helfgott tumbling over the edge of sanity onto the rocks below. But if the muses are smiling down on guest pianist Tzimon Barto, the upcoming concert will not be akin to a scene from the 1996 Academy Award winning movie "Shine."

What makes this concerto the pianist's Mt. Everest? Mark Russell Smith, the Richmond Symphony's new conductor, points out the work's most terrifying features — it has "so many fistfuls of notes...[and] you have to play loudly to be heard over the thick orchestrations." Translation — Barto will unleash more notes in 40 minutes than all of you amateur pianists have probably played in your entire life, and he will have to be heard over the orchestral equivalent of a plane landing.

The concerto, which is purported to have a million notes, is extremely rhapsodic, washing over you in a tidal wave of blistering arpeggios and chordal passages. Smith says it would have to be a pretty bad performance for an audience not to be blown away by the "sweeping momentum" of the work.

If you want to dip your toe in the ocean before jumping in, it's worth it to listen to a recording before attending the concert. We are lucky to have a recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff performing this work (with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony), one of the rare instances in which we can listen to a major composer performing his own masterwork. Rachmaninoff wrote the piece for himself to underscore his status as a superstar pianist/composer and, astoundingly, he mastered the concerto in nine days using a silent keyboard while shipboard en route to New York.

The Richmond Symphony's first concert under its new music director will also feature Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome." This musical postcard is really one in a set of three tone poems inspired by the city of Rome, which Smith describes as "a perfect opening night piece." Also on the program will be Hector Berlioz's "Roman Carnival Overture," a virtuoso showpiece for the orchestra. Both of these works evoke specific visual imagery in the listener's mind. Berlioz is renowned for this kind of "programmatic" music, which tells a story or conveys very specific emotions, as contrasted with "absolute" music, which is nonnarrative and more obviously abstract.

We use the term "classical music" loosely, but there is not one piece of "classical" music on the Symphony's opening night program. The works are romantic, florid, unrestrained in their flouting of conventional rules of structure. This will not be an evening of dry, intellectual explorations, but one of melancholy, passionate and joyous utterances from the souls of three