Movie night at the Santa Rosa Symphony with Rachmaninoff
When the Santa Rosa Symphony performs its penultimate concert of the season this weekend, it will launch a four-year project that fulfills two long-term dreams of Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong.
The “Rach & the Hollywood Sound” program will not only bring to light the rarely heard symphonic works of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff which are often overshadowed by his other works, it also will introduce the serious music of many Hollywood film composers.
“The four-year project will be the first time that there has been a Rachmaninoff cycle in Santa Rosa,” Lecce-Chong said. “I’ve done some research, and it appears that it is a first for the Bay Area as well.”
The symphony will present the night at the movies this Saturday through Monday, March 19-21, at the Green Music Center, with Nino Rota’s Ballet Suite from Fellini’s classic 1954 film “La Strada” (“The Road”) and Hildur Guǒnadóttir’s “From the Other Place,” composed in 2014. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 will close the program.
Italian composer Rota is best known for his soundtracks to Coppola’s “The Godfather” films, which won him an Oscar in 1975, while Icelandic composer Gudnadóttir is known for her soundtrack to “The Joker,” which won her an Oscar in 2019.
“I wanted to have these as bookends … the earliest days of Hollywood, and then where we are now as far as that evocative sound for the orchestra,” Lecce-Chong said. “Guǒnadóttir is still revolutionizing film music in general.”
Although Rachmaninoff never wrote music specifically for film, his lush and evocative soundscapes have inspired movie soundtracks from Hollywood’s Golden Age up until today.
“He wasn’t involved with Hollywood, and yet his music had such an influence on Hollywood ,” Lecce-Chong said. “He was using the orchestra in remarkable ways and just telling stories and evoking ideas.”
About 50 years ago, there was no distinction between film composers and classical composers, Lecce-Chong said. Classical composer Igor Stravinsky was desperate to write for movies, but he was repeatedly rejected. Meanwhile, Rachmaninoff had no interest in composing for Hollywood, yet he left a lasting mark.
Since 1929, more than 200 film and TV soundtracks have featured his works, including 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch” starring Marilyn Monroe, 1993’s “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray and 1996’s “Shine” starring Geoffrey Rush.
Lecce-Chong plans to continue the four-year project in subsequent seasons by presenting Rachmaninoff’s Symphonies No. 2 and 3 and his “Symphonic Dances,” perhaps the most frequently performed among his large orchestral works.
The popularity of Rachmaninoff’s second and third piano concertos, and his “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini,” can be blamed for the relative obscurity of the composer’s big orchestral masterpieces, Lecce-Chong said.
“It’s a logical thing, because admittedly, these piano concertos are amazing, but they are shoved in our faces,” Lecce-Chong said. “He was an amazing orchestrator. … So this will give a chance for Rachmaninoff and the orchestra to shine.”
This weekend, the conductor is looking forward to leading Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1, which has a tortured history as a youthful, overly ambitious piece written by the composer for his graduation.
“It’s insanely difficult, and it’s on an epic scale,” Lecce-Chong said. “(Alexander) Glazunov was supposed to have conducted, and it sounds like he was wildly drunk, so this bright, young composer ends up with a complete flop, gets raked over the coals and loses confidence in himself.”
It took Rachmaninoff three years, and many therapy sessions, to find the courage to write again. But he roared back with his most popular piece, the Piano Concerto No. 2.
Lecce-Chong plans to leave restraint behind and “just dig it out” with the risky Symphony No. 1, from its devilishly difficult sections to the massive, climactic moments.
“You just have to throw yourself at it,” he said. “That’s why people try to avoid it. You cannot put it in a box and control it. The beautiful chaos cannot be controlled.”
The work’s over-the-top ending, with the orchestra coming to a screeching stop and a huge gong ringing out, provides the visceral spectacle of a cinematic climax. And if musicians try to make that sound normal, Lecce-Chong said, it just doesn’t work.
“There’s s a reason why we come up to that cliff edge, and there’s just this gong ringing,” he said. “It’s these moments that makes me love this piece.”