“Playing all of those works has allowed me to observe every period of his musical life,” Kern explained. “The First Concerto has the same form and structure as the Grieg Concerto but the musical language is Rachmaninoff's. You can hear all the pianistically difficult and challenging language in (concertos) Two and Three, while in the Fourth, that language goes deeper and the music is more polyphonic.
“You really see his genius in the Rhapsody — how he transforms the Paganini theme. It's like he was trying to show a person's life from beginning to end. But the work ends with a question mark and you never get the question answered. It's so philosophical.”
After the disastrous premiere of his first symphony in 1897, Rachmaninoff fell into clinical depression that resulted in writer's block. After three months of therapy administered by physician Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninoff completed his Second Piano Concerto in 1901. The composer dedicated his concerto to Dahl for helping to restore his self-confidence.
Thanks to its tremendous melodic appeal, Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto has figured prominently in many Hollywood films, from “Brief Encounter” to “The Seven Year Itch.” One of its themes was even transformed into the popular song “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”
“When you hear Rachmaninoff's music, you understand how important his country was to him, especially after he came to the United States,” Kern said. “He put the feelings he had for his country in his music. It was the only way he could show people how beautiful his music was.
“And even though his concerti are some of the most difficult works in the repertoire, it's always a pleasure to perform Rachmaninoff. I find something new in his music every time I play one of his works. Every concerto is an exciting journey.”
Titled “Russian Enchantment,” the penultimate concert in the orchestra's 2012-13 classics season will also feature Stravinsky's 1947 suite to “Petrouchka.” Joel Levine will conduct.
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When I hear Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony or one of his piano concerti, I feel like I know this music as well as if I had composed it myself. As Russians, we were born with this music, it was always around us. It's natural that you feel like every note belongs to you.”