Santa Barbara Music Club 50th Season of Free Concerts

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Saturday, March 7, 2020 - 15:00

On Saturday, March 7 at 3 p.m. the Santa Barbara Music Club will present another program in its popular series of concerts of beautiful Classical music. Pianist Paolo Tatafiore highlights the reaches of piano technique and expression with Après une lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata, affectionately known as the “Dante Sonata” by Franz Liszt, as well as selections of Rachmaninoff’s preludes. This concert, co-sponsored by the Santa Barbara Public Library, will be held at the Faulkner Gallery of the library, 40 East Anapamu, Santa Barbara. Admission is free.

Many of us have heard the tale before: around 1830, a young Franz Liszt (1811–1888) witnessed a performance by the virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini (1782–1840). Life for the emerging pianist was never the same. So dazzled was Liszt by Paganini’s musical and technical command of the violin that he obsessively dedicated himself to piano study in the hopes he could do for the piano what Paganini had done for the violin. What this tale doesn’t tell us, however, is how Liszt learned from Paganini and his years of study the ability to integrate virtuosity with formal organization and development. The virtuosity constitutive of Liszt’s piano music tends to grab our immediate attend, sometimes at the expense of recognizing the melodic and motivic invention in his compositions. And virtuosity often receives the most criticism, as its practitioners run the risk of devolving musical performance into empty brilliance, grandstanding, and artifice – where musical expression becomes a vehicle for the capabilities of the performer.

Not so with Liszt, though historians over the years have dithered back and forth over the validity of his contributions to piano literature on the basis of their technical difficulty. Yet Liszt lays bare seemingly otherworldly virtuosity and remarkable compositional craft in his set of three piano suites, Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). Liszt composed the suites mostly between approximately 1835 and 1839 with several reworkings thereafter. Today we hear the last piece from Book II, the Italian pilgrimage: the famous “Dante Sonata,” or Après une lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata. Liszt wrote the piece in 1839 and revised it ten years later.

Paolo Tatafiore’s performance of the “Dante Sonata” reveals the deep thought and work Liszt poured into his craft. While it is a single-movement fantasy-sonata, it also captures the essence of a multi-movement sonata cycle. In other words, one can analyze the single movement as one long three-part movement in sonata-allegro form—an exposition of introductory, main, and secondary themes; the development of those themes; and a recapitulation of the themes at the end. Yet one also can divide the piece into four smaller sections, each one emulating the typical movements of a classical sonata by, say, Beethoven. As if this form-within-a-form scheme weren’t impressive enough, Liszt fuses together his newly developed piano technique with the Beethovenian practice of taking small rhythmic, melodic ideas and building a large-scale form around them. Liszt uses the compositional technique of variation, a perfect vehicle to flex one’s virtuosic muscles while retaining the same melodic material, to sustain the work. Indeed, the “Dante Sonata” required as much compositional invention as this, because Liszt in essence gave to us his sonic interpretation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

Tatafiore concludes this afternoon’s performance with the music of another virtuoso, Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), Prelude in C# Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, and selections from Preludes op. 23: Nos.1 in F# minor, 2 in Bb major, 4 in D major, 5 in G minor, 6 in Eb major, and 7 in C minor. Much like the Liszt-Paganini story, a history surrounds Rachmaninoff and his beloved C#-minor prelude. He wrote the piece at a mere 19 years of age and premiered it on 26 September 1892. To its credit, the prelude garnered the attention of teachers, colleagues, and critics, and it put Rachmaninoff on the map. Yet, as the composer mused throughout his life, the prelude haunted him. It became one of the only pieces—certainly the most popular—for which the composer was known. Audiences constantly asked for and requested the piece during performances. Yet for as much as it proved a perennial thorn in the side of the composer, the prelude intimated much of what Rachmaninoff would compose throughout his life. The piece opens with dark sonorities while loud bass tones interrupt a seeming endless line of soft chords in the mid-register of the piano, as if the agitation and virtuosity of the middle section is trying to break free. The middle and final sections relay one of Rachmaninoff’s staple pianistic techniques. He increases both the tempo and virtuosity until the music almost collapses under its own momentum, followed by an unrelenting progression of thick chords in both hands while jumping to oppposite ends of the piano.

Many of the stylistic traits found in the Prelude in C# Minor surface to a higher degree of development and exploration in the Op. 23 Preludes. For example, Rachmaninoff sustains a beautiful melodic line over a listless and anxiety-laden accompaniment in the first prelude in F# minor, while Nos. 2 in Bb and 5 in G minor both convey a sense of stateliness in contrasting ways. The Bb prelude has sweeping lines in the left hand from which grows a melody as powerful as it is versatile. The G-minor prelude, on the other hand, adopts the Polish polonaise dance rhythm, which here takes on the character of a military march with moments of repose in the middle section. Although more restrained in nature than the Bb prelude, the G-minor prelude has become one of Rachmaninoff’s signature pieces for solo piano. The only other prelude from the Op. 23 collection that might match the G minor in popularity is the intensely lyrical and longing fourth prelude in D Major. Nos. 4 and 6 demonstrate Rachmaninoff’s penchant for restrained beauty with a touch of melancholy, archetypical for the late-Romantic idiom that governed the composer’s output. The perpetual motion of the C-minor prelude, not unlike that of preludes 1 and 2, takes on a far more sinister character. Prelude No. 7 is in essence a toccata, as the pianist contends with a constant barrage of sixteenth notes cast within a fast tempo, which culminates in a triumphant ending.

Santa Barbara Music Club concerts are free to the public, and display a wonderful diversity of historical musical periods and compositional styles, including beloved masterworks and exciting new and seldom-heard repertoire. Of the series, the Santa Barbara Independent exclaimed: "A beautiful day, a beautiful room, beautiful music ... who could ask for more?" and Gerald Carpenter in declared, "Every Santa Barbara Music Club concert that I have ever attended has been a sensory joy as well as a consciousness expansion."

A valued cultural resource in the community since 1969, the Music Club's mission is threefold:

(1) Presentation of an annual series of concerts, free to the public.

(2) Aiding and encouraging musical education by the disbursement of scholarships to talented local music students.

(3) Presentation of community outreach activities, including bringing great music to residents of area retirement homes.

For information on this or other Santa Barbara Music Club programs and performing artists, visit

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