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Pianist Peter Allen is guest soloist in PEISO opening concert

by Anne Bergstrom

The opening concert of the PEI Symphony Orchestra season features a Russian theme. Pianist Peter Allen, who last appeared with the Symphony in the spring of 2000, loves the Russian repertoire, and has decided to play Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He finds the work inventive, imaginative, and filled with a variety of sound and mood.

The theme is drawn from Paganini’s famous A minor Caprice, with a simple 16-bar theme which has been borrowed for variations by Liszt, Brahms, and others. Rachmaninov’s work is not performed as frequently as his Second and Third Concertos; it is the composer’s last work for piano and orchestra.

Before completing it in 1934, he had become discouraged by the failure of several other compositions. During this period, he made his living as a soloist, and is considered one of the word’s greatest pianists of his time. His audiences yearned for satisfying romantic melodies. Finally, with this set of variations, they got it in Variation 18, and the piece was an immediate success. It was premiered with the composer as soloist. The structure of the work is brilliant and, according to Allen, it is the greatest set of variations ever written for piano and orchestra.

The Rhapsody is made up of an introduction, theme, and 24 variations, which are played without pause. It falls loosely into three sections; the middle part has a slower tempo, which builds to the 18th Variation, Rachmaninov’s last great melody and the climax of the piece.

According to R.G. Bratby, “…towards the end of his career (Rachmaninov) would inevitably drink a glass of crème de menthe before a performance of the Rhapsody in order to help him through the swifter passages.”

Peter Allen is a Halifax-based pianist, composer, teacher, and conductor. As a performer, he enjoys playing concertos, solo recital repertoire, and chamber music. He likes them all for different reasons, since each has its own challenges and rewards. As a composer, there are other challenges—there is no guarantee that you will like your finished product. However, he has composed works for piano, orchestra, chamber groups, and string quartet; many works have been performed, and some recorded. He said, “I love the orchestral sound and the music.” When asked if he regretted not playing an orchestral instrument, he said no, “because piano can do it all!”

He conducts when he gets the opportunity, “for fun,” but then said, “It’s all fun!” He is now in his second year as assistant professor of piano at Dalhousie University.

Also on the program are Glinka’s lively Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, and Kalinnikov’s Symphony No. 2 in A major.

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