Saint-Saëns Has His Day
Saint-Saëns would have excelled in any intellectual
pursuit, but we can be grateful he chose music. Indeed, he produced over 600
works in various styles and genres over the course of his long life, and was
once quoted as saying he produced music âas an apple tree produces apples.â His
gifts were natural and his life largely untroubled, making him kind of a French
Saint-Saënsâ Danse Macabre, Op. 40 (1874), a
waltz-fantasy for violin and orchestra, has long been a concert hall favorite.
A setting of a poem by Henri Cazalis (1840-1909), it portrays Death as a
fiddler rousing skeletons to dance to his tune, with daybreak finally causing
the apparitions to disperse as quickly and mysteriously as they were conjured.
Of Saint-Saënsâ five piano concertos only the second
has managed to maintain a tenuous hold on the contemporary concert stage. While
the others should not be neglected, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22
(1868) deserves to be heard more often. Suggested to him by eminent Russian
composer-pianist Anton Rubinstein (1829-94) for an upcoming Paris concert, Saint-Saëns composed this work
in a remarkable 17 days. While such haste didnât make for a particularly
successful debut performance, the concerto caught on with subsequent
performances and became Saint-Saënsâ most popular. Unusual for a concerto, the
work begins with a solemn piano cadenza, the melancholy theme eventually
wending its way through the orchestra and elaborated upon with consummate
skill. Rather than the typical slow second movement, Saint-Saëns provided a
mischievous scherzoâone of the most popular of such in the keyboard literature.
The Presto finale fairly glitters with dramatic agitation, rather well suited
to the workâs unusual G Minor home key.
As with his concertos, Saint-Saëns composed five
symphonies, only one of which, Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 (1886), is ever
heard today. Conceived on a grand scale, it is commonly known as The Organ
Symphony because of the important role that instrument plays in the
workânot as a solo but as an interwoven strand of the orchestral fabric. Within
its unorthodox two-movement layout are actually all four of the conventional
symphonic movements, alternating fast-slow-fast-slow. Saint-Saëns deftly saves
the organâs full voice for the Maestoso-Allegro finale, where it sounds
triumphant chords right to the very end.
This remarkable all-Saint-Saëns concert, in which
three of his most successful and popular works are presented together, will be
performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Edo de Waart at
Uihlein Hall on May 28 and 29. The soloist for the G Minor concerto is
Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski, who has performed all over the world and has
recorded several recital albums for EMI Classics.