A concert pianist's list of repertoire is neither etched in stone nor indiscriminately chosen. And while there's considerable overlap among great artists — nearly everyone includes concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt — it's the area just beyond the commonplace where one finds the unusual, the underplayed or the unfamiliar.
Barry Douglas, the distinguished Irish pianist who was only the second non-Russian to win the celebrated Tchaikovsky Competition outright — Van Cliburn being the first — returns for an encore engagement with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic this week. He'll play a concerto that hasn't been central to his repertoire, Camille Saint-Saens' “Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor.”
“I played it very early in my career,” Douglas said recently by phone from Ireland, adding that he didn't think at the time that it was the best fit for his technique and musical temperament. “Then I played it a couple of years ago with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in France and I began to see the essence of this piece.
“I felt I was the one at fault so I really fought to find a way to bring the concerto to life in my own way.
“While it's lyrical, elegant music written from the heart, I discovered that approaching it more as a fantasy was the best way for me to handle it.”
The second of Saint-Saens' five piano concertos, the “Concerto in G Minor” was completed in only 17 days in 1868. Its unusual structure features an unaccompanied introduction for the piano, followed by a brief statement from the orchestra and finally, the first movement's main theme.
While most piano concertos tend to feature a slow middle movement — typically marked adagio, andante or larghetto — Saint-Saens composed a lively scherzo for his “Piano Concerto No. 2.” The work's finale is a fast and furious tarantella.
Arthur Rubinstein became an ardent champion of the Saint-Saens Second and bookended his career with this concerto. It was the vehicle he chose for his professional debut and it was the concerto he played on his final television appearance.
Douglas recalled having played the Saint-Saens “Sonata for Clarinet” but his real introduction to the Frenchman's music was a production of “Samson and Delilah” at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
“Hearing ‘Samson and Delilah' turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Douglas recalled. “I wanted to take all of that incredibly passionate late romantic music and bring it to the piano concerto.
“I kind of felt like I had set myself up for disappointment because this concerto is not of that ilk. But I've grown to love it like you would a wonderful aged aunt. It's never going to rock the world but it definitely has a place in the world.”
Titled “Blazing Colors with a French Twist,” this all-French program will also feature Saint-Saens' “Danse Macabre,” an 1874 work that opens with the harp playing 12 repeated notes to signal midnight.
That's followed by an appearance from the Devil (portrayed by a solo violinist who is asked to tune his E string a half step lower, which creates an eerie sound) and finally some ghostly revelry that ends just before dawn breaks.
Music director Joel Levine has also programmed Hector Berlioz's “Harold in Italy,” an 1834 work for viola and orchestra. Inspired by Lord Byron's “Childe Harold,” the work is more of a symphony with a prominent viola line than an actual concerto for viola. Principal violist Royce McLarry will be the featured soloist.