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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Symphony to Salute Russian Artistic Giants

Sergei Rachmaninov

February's concerts by the Santa Barbara Symphony — at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, in The Granada Theatre — will feature two guest artists but only one composer.

Maestro Nir Kabaretti will yield the podium (temporarily) to British conductor James Judd, and the talented young Canadian pianist Ian Parker will solo in the event's concerted work.

The composer is Sergei Rachmaninov, a selection that more or less guarantees that everyone in the auditorium at the beginning of the concert will be there at the end of it.

Judd will lead the Symphony in two of Rachmaninov's most gorgeous and tuneful works (which is saying a lot!). We'll hear the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) with Parker and the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940).

The two works are connected more intimately than just being written by the same man — they serve as a shining example of the symbiotic magic that can operate between creator and interpreter.

Rachmaninov wrote the Rhapsody in Switzerland in 1934; it took him about three weeks. The work premiered in Philadelphia in November of the same year, with the composer at the keyboard and Leopold Stokowski conducting.

(Rachmaninov is on record as saying that the Philadelphia Orchestra was "the greatest orchestra in the world".)

It was, of course, a tremendous success. Five years later, in 1939, the legendary choreographer of the  Ballets Russes, Michel Fokine, wrote to Rachmaninov, asking his permission to use the Rhapsody for a ballet he was writing about Paganini.

Rachmaninov agreed, even to the very small changes Fokine wanted to make in the score. The ballet's consequent success was due in no small part to Rachmaninov's music, of course.

Michel Fokine

Here is the interesting part. It seems that Rachmaninov had been bitten by the ballet bug, and he wrote the Symphonic Dances with the idea of giving them to Fokine to choreograph.

Fokine was entirely amenable to the project, which got as far as the composer playing the completed piano score for the choreographer, and the latter enthusiastically signing on.

"You want to make God laugh?" the saying goes, "Tell Him your plans."

Rachmaninov was still deep in the process of orchestrating the Symphonic Dances when Fokine suddenly died, and the composer had barely finished the orchestration when he followed suit.

Had Fokine lived, the collaboration would have doubtless produced a brilliant and memorable ballet, but even so, he had inspired the aging Rachmaninov to create what is arguably his greatest purely orchestral score, which would never have existed if he hadn't made such a great success with the ballet using the Rhapsody.

Tickets for these concerts are $28-$133, with special rates for seniors, students and groups. Discounted student tickets are available for $10 with valid student ID.

Single tickets can be purchased from the Granada Box Office at 805.899.2222 or online from

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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