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Rachmaninoff’s Second becomes a voluptuous romantic showpiece in deft hands of pianist Alain Lefèvre during upcoming Pacific Symphony classical extravaganza

Orange County, Calif. — November 13, 2014

Also, Beethoven’s mighty Seventh Symphony and world premiere tribute to Music Director Carl St.Clair by Composer-in-Residence Narong Prangcharoen 

Savor two giant works of the repertoire for Pacific Symphony’s first concert in December, beginning with Beethoven’s masterful and rhythmic Seventh Symphony, which the composer himself called “one of my best works.” Then, the program turns to perhaps the world’s most lyrical, popular and critically admired piano concerto—Rachmaninoff’s Second—performed by keyboard wonder and longtime Symphony friend, Alain Lefèvre. The concert, led by Music Director Carl St.Clair, opens with a world premiere by the Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence Narong Prangcharoen, who offers a musical tribute to the maestro with his piece, “Illuminating Journey,” which honors St.Clair’s 25th anniversary with the orchestra, as well as his commitment to new music.

Taking place Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 11-13, at 8 p.m. in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, “Beethoven & Rachmaninoff” continues the 2014-15 Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation Classical Series. Tickets for this concert are $25-$99. A preview talk with Alan Chapman begins at 7 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 755-5799 or visit PacificSymphony.org.

The program is highlighted with music by the last of the Russian Romantics, Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose Second Piano Concerto is the composition that made his reputation. It’s also a piece that requires significant skill to play. Acclaimed pianist Lefèvre has the tremendous power, speed and dexterity, flexible hand span and ability to capture the subtle gradations in tempo and dynamics that are necessary to conquer this musical beast. The extroverted and always capable Canadian pianist was described in the Toronto Star as having “the 10 most agile fingers to have emerged from Quebec.”  

Maestro St.Clair’s remarkable artistic partnership with Lefèvre dates back more than two decades. It was a young Lefèvre who played and recorded John Corigliano’s piano concerto with Pacific Symphony under St.Clair’s direction in 1994. The recording of that concerto continues to be the benchmark version and earned Corigliano’s enthusiastic praise. Lefèvre’s first performance of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with the Symphony came a decade later. The pianist’s hectic international career currently spans 42 countries, including recent appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the PBS show Charlie Rose.

 Thanks to its demands for spectacularly virtuosic playing, Rachmaninoff’s Second is enormously popular—but Lefèvre believes the pressure to ramp up the spectacle can work against a deeper approach to the music.

“I love this concerto,” he says, “but I also see it as a piece that can lend itself to exaggeration. Pianists play it fast and loud…you see pianists, especially young pianists, already banging out climaxes after the first two bars. I want to tell them that if they are already playing climaxes so early, it will be tough to achieve a climax in the third movement.”

Also on the program is Beethoven’s vivacious Seventh Symphony—described by Richard Wagner as an “apotheosis of the dance”—which concluded St.Clair’s first appearance as music director of Pacific Symphony in 1990. The Los Angeles Times called that concert: “a bright beginning,” saying of Beethoven’s work: “They made it a brisk and energetic showpiece… It was never dutiful, never dull.”

The fact that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is full of boundless enthusiasm and energetic, leaping rhythms is a little ironic, considering that he wrote it during a period of relative serenity during an otherwise intense life. The symphony was written in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice, where Beethoven had gone for the traditional rest-cure of the times. The sheer exuberance of the work seems to belie the relaxation he must have found there.

Of Beethoven’s “major” symphonies, the Seventh has aroused the widest spectrum of efforts to “interpret” its meaning. No such compulsion plagues the others—

the “Choral” is guided by its text, the Fifth traces an emotional passage from grim determination to triumph, and Beethoven himself proclaimed his inspiration for the “Eroica” and described the movements of the “Pastoral.” But his Seventh is without such markers, and many believe that’s a sign of inspired subtlety and a tribute to its remarkable ability to summon a broad spectrum of deeply personal and highly diverse response among listeners.

“When we think of Beethoven as the Promethean composer who broke boundaries and reinvented forms, his symphonies immediately come to mind; the word ‘fun’ does not,” says the Symphony’s program note writer, Michael Clive. “Yet ‘fun’ is a word seen over and over again in critical appreciations of his Symphony No. 7. Its exuberance makes it seem like a symphony of joyful first movements and exciting climaxes, with scarcely a relaxed moment.”

Whether its intention is pure fun or not, it’s the large-scale, buoyant, driving meters, the powerful rhythmic drive that captivates the audience. ”It’s like riding in a convertible with the top down on a beautiful, empty road,” suggests Clive. “It’s all we can do to keep from jumping out of our seats with leaping gestures that match our feelings about the music as we listen.”

The third piece on the program, “Illuminating Journey,” by Thai composer Prangcharoen, receives its world premiere and opens the concert. Commissioned by

Pacific Symphony, the musical tribute to St.Clair is a reflection of a close and lengthy relationship. Named the Symphony’s composer-in-residence last season and continuing into the next, Prangcharoen’s history with the orchestra began in 2005, when he made his debut performance under St.Clair’s baton. The talented young composer went on to write a piece called “Sattha for Strings, Piano and Percussion”—another commission by the Symphony—when he won the American Composers Competition by audience vote in 2004. Written as a musical meditation on the tsunami that devastated his home country that same year, it combined Eastern and Western musical traditions to offer a refuge of hope with driving energy and eclectic, slithering harmonies. The work was then performed by the orchestra in May 2012.

Prangcharoen’s enormously compelling music, frequently programmed throughout the world, has commanded many international prizes, including the Alexander Zemlinsky International Composition Prize and the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award, which honors Takemitsu’s principles of prayer, hope and peace through music. Like Prangcharoen, Takemitsu was a composer known for creatively combining Asian and Western musical traditions. In 2011, Prangcharoen received the Annual Underwood Commission by the American Composers Orchestra, and in 2013 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Barlow Prize, confirming his place as one of Asia’s leading composers.

The Symphony’s Classical series performances are made possible by the Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation, with additional support from Mercedes-Benz, the official vehicle; the Avenue of the Arts Wyndham Hotel; KUSC and PBS SoCal. This weekend’s concerts are sponsored by the Shanbrom Family Foundation and the appearance of Alain Lefèvre is sponsored by the Nicholas Family Foundation.