"A Conservatory in Hell"

Contrary to what that incessant do-gooder G.I.Joe may tell you, half the battle in writing these here Classical Gas columns is coming up with a way to begin. Sure, I could open with a story from my childhood but since most of that was spent watering the same plants with the same hose using water from the same well, the few stories I have left need to be saved for my obituary. Speaking of childhood, should you have any mobile bipeds in your immediate care, hoodwink grandma into watching them this Saturday and head on over to the Embassy Centre for a good old-fashioned greased pig catchin' contest. After that, around eightish, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic will be performing a number of exciting pieces, including Maurice Ravel's Rapsodie espangnole. But in light of recent Olympic events, we won't waste any ink on the French (insert Franco-American boycott of WhatzUp here). As part of my continuing campaign to promote living American women composers from Minnesota, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic finally caved and will be featuring a piece by Libby Larson (must… resist… catchy… jingle…). Not only does she have an extensive catalog of orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and operatic compositions, but she happened to nickname her first symphony "Water Music". Although the foundation has tried to keep it a secret, it's pretty much common knowledge that most of the members of the local philharmonic are water addicts, thus their insistence on including this piece, which ends up being fortunate for us because Larson's music is full of appealing melodies, clear textures, and wonderful scoring. You will like it, like it, like it.

Although it's not know if Libby Larson will journey "doon" from Minnesota this Saturday, it has been confirmed that Barry Douglas will be joining this fair city via Ireland. Barry Douglas is not to be confused with Douglas "shinypants" Barry, who isn't the guy who wrote the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series (that was Douglas Adams… try to stay with me here). This is Barry Douglas the pianist who has gained worldwide recognition for his brilliant readings of classic piano concertos. While he is officially under an exclusive contract with Red Seal, they are lending him to us for an evening and all it cost us was 237 drachmas and a city official.

The piece Mr. Douglas will be playing is Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. Due to a certain film, most people associate the third piano concerto with the name Rachmaninoff (personally, "Rachmaninoff" makes me think of the time my regular coffee was replaced with Folgers Crystals and my head imploded, but that's another story) but for most of last century, it was the lyrical Piano Concerto #2 that was "THE" Rachmaninoff piano concerto. But like David Helfgott's struggle to master #3, the struggle of Rachmaninoff to complete #2 is a fascinating study in personality disorders.

As a young man of 24, Rach composed his first symphony. Suffice it to say that the premier went badly, with one critic even suggesting that the piece was produced by "a Conservatory in Hell." The young Rachmaninoff's hero was fellow Russian Tchaikovsky, not exactly a model for keeping a stiff upper lip and the already brood-prone pre-Prozac gloomy gus was crushed like a discarded cigarette butt under the heel of a guy named Furbelow who recently got a lobotomy at Ed's Lobotomy Shak, but the technician was having a bad day because of an impacted molar and so didn't do the best of work, thus leaving Furbelow only partially lobotomized and with a constant sense of impending ennui. A deep depression soon followed, accompanied by an addiction to kielbasa and three years of being unable to compose. Had it not been for Dr. Nikolai, who performed daily hypnosis sessions on Rachmaninoff by having him watch re-runs of "Land of the Lost", the world may have been deprived of some great music. After four months of therapy, Rachmaninoff was cured of writer's block (plus he stopped smoking and no longer had the urge to dance with chickens). The Second Piano Concerto was completed at a feverish pace and to show his gratitude, the composition was dedicated to the good doctor, although Rach stiffed him on the bill and jumped a ship to America.

A devout believer in the Romantic era, Rachmaninoff had a knack for melody not seen again until the famed British composer Lennon-McCartney in the mid 1960s. Themes from all three movements of this piece have been adapted to popular songs. Why, who could forget "I Think Of You" or "Full Moon and Empty Arms" from the 1940s? If no bells are ringing, try the soft-rock classic "All By Myself" by Eric Carmen, ransacked from the second movement. With striking symphonic color, sweeping emotional melodies, and poetic balance, it's easy to see how his music appeals not only to hopeless romantics and gloomy gus's worldwide but even to those who don't normally consider themselves fans of classical music.

Copyright 2002 Jason Hoffman

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