Passion of Rachmaninoff showcased by HSO


There will be Valentine’s passion on display—Rachmaninoff style—when pianist Sean Chen and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra team up next week.
The HSO will present “Rachmaninoff & Firebird” as the fifth concert of its 2014-2015 Masterworks Series on Thursday, Feb. 12 through Sunday, Feb. 15 in the Belding Theater at The Bushnell in Hartford.  The concerts will feature HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan and guest pianist Sean Chen. The program will include Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser, WWV 70, Leonard Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (featuring images from the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Coney Island exhibit), Stravinsky’s The Firebird: Suite (1919), and, featuring pianist Sean Chen, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18.
In an email interview, Chen—who received his artist diploma at the Yale School of Music in 2014 and was named by International Piano magazine as “One To Watch” in 2014—spoke about his upcoming performance of the Rachmaninoff piece.
“Rachmaninoff’s music has always been fun for me to play,” said Chen. “He was such a great pianist that everything he wrote was fun and satisfying to play, both the fast passages as well as the slow melodic passages. This piece especially has such great melodies; there’s nothing like it in the rest of the piano literature.”
Chen said the piece is not without its challenges, however. “The challenge in this piece is that it is so well-known. I try to present my unique view of this piece to the audience. That is not to say I will be doing weird things or doing things differently for the sake of doing them differently. However, one must always try to make it like it is the first time the piece is being played. The freshness is hard to keep.”
As for how he tried to remain true to Rachmaninoff’s intent for the piece, Chen explained, “‘Composer’s intent’ is a hard thing to tackle. We do have piano roll recordings of Rachmaninoff, and also actual audio recordings of him playing his concerti. So we do know what he would have done. The dilemma comes when you realize that he does things he does not write in the score, or sometimes he does the complete opposite. He probably played it differently in different performances. Therefore, I don’t worry so much about ‘intent.’”
Instead, Chen explained, “I do focus on musical integrity, that I express what I want to express, and that I look at the score and try to bring out interesting things and important things, whether they are structural, harmonic, or melodic. Being sincere about the music you create is most important.”
When audiences listen to the piece, Chen noted there are certain aspects to the composition to listen for.
“An interesting thing about most of Rachmaninoff’s compositions is how thematically unified it is,” explained the pianist. “I would encourage the listener to find certain motifs that recur throughout the piece. It might be fragments of a melody from the first movement that appear fleetingly in the third movement. Or it might be a turn figure that slowly takes over the first movement, and pops up in the later movements as well. Finally, it’s a fun thing to note that Rachmaninoff likes to end his concerti with a rhythm that sounds just like how ‘Rachmaninoff’ sounds. This happens in both the 2nd and 3rd concerti.”
Hartford Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Series presents “Rachmaninoff and Firebird” Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 12 to 15. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Belding Theater at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets start at $38.50. Tickets are $10 for students with identification.
For more information, call (860)987-5900 or

Pianist Sean Chen performs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra starting next Thursday.
Pianist Sean Chen performs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra starting next Thursday.