Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Wed, July 17, 2024 6:30 pm


Grant Park Orchestra

Eric Jacobsen, conductor

Clayton Stephenson, piano


Le tombeau de Couperin


Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43

Clayton Stephenson, piano


Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
Turandot: Scherzo


Jay Pritzker Pavilion


Approx. 70 minutes


Clayton Stephenson


American pianist Clayton Stephenson’s love for music is immediately apparent in his joyous charisma onstage, expressive power, and natural ease at the instrument. Hailed for “extraordinary narrative and poetic gifts” and interpretations that are “fresh, incisive and characterfully alive” (Gramophone), he is committed to making an impact on the world through his music-making.

Growing up in New York City, Clayton started piano lessons at age 7 and was accepted into the Juilliard Outreach Music Advancement Program for underprivileged children the next year, where he attended numerous student recitals and fell in love with music. At the age of 10 he advanced to Juilliard’s elite Pre-College program with the help of his teacher, Beth Nam. At Juilliard he studied with Matti Raekallio, Hung-Kuang Chen and Ernest Barretta. Clayton practiced on a synthesizer at home until he found an old upright piano on the street that an elementary school had thrown away; that would become his practice piano for the next six years, until the Lang Lang Foundation donated a new piano to him when he was 17.

He credits the generous support of community programs with providing him musical inspiration and resources along the way. As he describes it, the “3rd Street Music School jump-started my music education; the Young People’s Choir taught me phrasing and voicing; the Juilliard Outreach Music Advancement Program introduced me to formal and rigorous piano training, which enabled me to get into Juilliard Pre-College; the Morningside Music Bridge validated my talent and elevated my self-confidence; the Boy’s Club of New York exposed me to jazz; and the Lang Lang Foundation brought me to stages worldwide and transformed me from a piano student to a young artist.”

Recent and upcoming highlights of Clayton’s burgeoning career include appearances with the Calgary Philharmonic, Chicago Sinfonietta, and the Fort Worth, Louisville, Lansing and North Carolina Symphony Orchestras; as well as recitals at the Phillips Collection Concert Series in Washington, DC, Foundation Louis Vuitton Auditorium in Paris, Bad Kissinger Sommer Festival and BeethovenFest in Germany, Colour of Music Festival, Ravinia Festival and Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.  He has been featured on NPR, WUOL, and WQXR, and appeared in the “GRAMMY® Salute to Classical Music” Concert at Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium.

He now studies in the Harvard-NEC Dual Degree Program, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in economics at Harvard and a master’s degree in piano performance at the New England Conservatory under Wha Kyung Byun. And his accolades along the way have been numerous – in addition to being the first Black finalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2022, he was named a 2022 Gilmore Young Artist, as well as a 2017 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts and a Young Scholar of the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. He also received  a jury discretionary award at the 2015 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival.

Eric Jacobsen


Just 40 years old and already well-established as one of classical music’s most exciting and innovative young conductors, Eric Jacobsen combines fresh interpretations of the traditional canon with cutting-edge collaborations across musical genres. Hailed by the New York Times as “an interpretive dynamo,” Eric, as both a conductor and a cellist, has built a reputation for engaging audiences with innovative and collaborative programming.

Eric joined the Virginia Symphony Orchestra as Music Director in 2021, being named the twelfth music director in the orchestra’s 100+ year history. Recent and upcoming projects include a recording project of Dvorak and Coleridge-Taylor with Gil Shaham, and a world premiere of a new mandolin concerto by Chris Thile.

Eric is in his eighth season as Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, as he continues to pioneer the orchestra’s programming and community engagement in new and exciting directions. The 22-23 season saw the return of the Resonate Festival, a unique blend of old and new orchestral and chamber works, performed in standard and more intimate concert formats. Featuring Artist-in-Residence Anthony McGill, one of the most poetic clarinetists ever, in what will be a truly remarkable and inspiring set of concerts.

Eric is also artistic director and co-founder of The Knights, the uniquely adventurous NYC-based chamber orchestra. The ensemble, founded with his brother, violinist Colin Jacobsen, grew out of late-night music reading parties with friends, good food and drink, and conversation. As conductor, Jacobsen has led the “consistently inventive, infectiously engaged indie ensemble” (New York Times) at venues throughout New York City and surrounding areas, at major summer festivals, and on tour nationally and internationally. Under Jacobsen’s baton, The Knights have developed an extensive recording collection, which includes the critically acclaimed albums Azul, with longtime collaborator Yo-Yo Ma, as well as a recent album featuring Gil Shaham in performances of the Beethoven and Brahms Violin Concertos.

A frequent guest conductor, Eric has established continuing relationships with the Colorado Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, and the Dresden Musikfestspiele. This season’s engagements also include concerts with the Omaha Symphony, New Jersey Symphony, and Grant Park Festival.

Eric brings joy, storytelling, and a touch of humor to what he describes as “musical conversations” that delight audiences around the world, including those who do not traditionally attend classical music concerts. Jacobsen is married to Grammy-Winner singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan and they have a five-year-old daughter, Ivy Jo.



Maurice Ravel (Originally for piano; orchestrated by the composer, 1919) (1875-1937)  

Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914)  

Scored for: two flutes including piccolo, two oboes including English Horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two French horns, one trumpet, harp, and strings

Performance time: 17 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance: August 10, 1977; John Nelson, conductor 

As a young man, Maurice Ravel had been exempted from conscription in the army given his small stature. (He was reportedly five-foot-three and just over a hundred pounds.) Nevertheless, when war broke out in 1914, the 40-year-old composer was determined to serve. He applied numerous times to become a pilot but was rejected over his age and a newly diagnosed heart condition. His friend and colleague Igor Stravinsky said, “At his age and with his name he could have had an easier place, or done nothing.” But Ravel persisted, the war having sapped him of his creative energies. He eventually headed to the front lines in March 1916, serving as a truck driver in the Army Motor Transport Corps. This dangerous job required transporting munitions and fuel under heavy German bombardment. In September 1916, he contracted dysentery and was sent to a hospital in Paris to recover. While still recuperating in the hospital that winter, Ravel learned that his mother had died. The news sent him into a downward spiral, and after a brief return to his military post, he was eventually discharged following a mental breakdown. He waited out the remainder of the conflict in a village in Normandy, where he returned to compositions he had set aside during the war.  

One of these compositions was a piano suite based on baroque dance forms. Initially titled Suite française, the piece was inspired by the composer and keyboard virtuoso François Couperin (1668–1733). Ravel takes Couperin as a stylistic touchpoint, fusing his own contemporary harmonic language with the rhythms, cadences, and ornamentation of Couperin’s time. But what began as a celebration of French musical history became a commemoration of those who had died in the war. Retitling the work Le Tombeau de Couperin (“Memorial for Couperin”), Ravel dedicated each movement to a friend who had perished in the conflict. That said, the work is surprisingly upbeat for a memorial, which Ravel explained by saying, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”  

The six-movement piano suite premiered in 1919. That same year, Ravel turned it into an orchestral suite, removing two movements and reordering the remaining four. In the “Prélude,” the swirling opening motif evokes the perpetual motion of Couperin’s harpsichord music. Here, Ravel demonstrates his mastery of colorful and clear orchestration, passing the melody between different combinations of wind instruments before building up layers of sound with the strings. “Forlane,” a Venetian folk dance that gained popularity in the courts of eighteenth-century France, skips along coyly, and the introspective “Menuet” nods to Couperin in the oboe’s graceful ornamentation. The contrasting middle section recalls a somber musette, a rustic dance traditionally accompanied by the drone of a bagpipe. Like “Menuet,” the otherwise playful “Rigaudon” features a dark yet pastoral middle section. “Rigaudon” is dedicated to Ravel’s childhood friends Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, two brothers who were killed by the same shell on their first day at the front.  


Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)  

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op.43 (1934)  

Scored for: three flutes including piccolo, three oboes including English Horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings, and solo piano

Performance time: 22 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance: August 1, 1958; Milton Katims, conductor and Agustin Anievas, piano 

Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 contains one of the most recognizable themes in all classical music, having inspired countless variations by composers such as Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. In Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873–1943) ingenuity reaches a whole other level. For instance, by simply turning Paganini’s famous theme upside down, he crafts a melody that would become instantly recognizable and beloved in its own right. Appearing in Variation 18, this rapturous theme recalls Rachmaninov’s expansive pre-war lyricism. Noting its populist appeal, the composer quipped, “This one is for my agent.” 

Paganini wrote his set of 24 Caprices for Solo Violin in 1805. Each Caprice demonstrates a different technical skill he had cultivated as the foremost violin virtuoso of his day. As a set, they revolutionized people’s ideas of what the violin was capable of. In fact, Paganini was so wickedly talented that rumors circulated that he had sold his soul to the devil, earning him the moniker “The Devil’s Violinist.” Just as Paganini’s 24 Caprices challenge the violinist, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini puts the pianist through their paces in a rapid-fire set of variations on the final Caprice. “Rhapsody” is a bit of a misnomer, suggesting lengthy exposition. After receiving scathing criticisms for the length of his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1927, Rachmaninov began tightening up his compositions. In Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, composed in 1934, most of the twenty-four variations are under one minute, and some are as brief as twenty seconds. In addition to rejecting the sprawling forms he had used pre-war, his late style employs more dissonance and sharper rhythms. 

In what is likely a reference to the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Rachmaninov opens the Rhapsody not with a statement of the titular theme but with a variation on it. Then, when he finally states the theme, he gives it to the violin section, not the piano soloist, who instead plays skeletal single notes. Rachmaninov introduces a secondary theme in Variation 7—the “Dies irae” (“Day of Wrath”) chant from the Latin Requiem Mass—played in slow chords in the piano under a plaintive rendition of Paganini’s theme in the bassoon. A particular favorite of Rachmaninov’s, the medieval chant has crept into countless works of classical music as a harbinger of death. Perhaps this quotation is a nod to Paganini’s “devilish” reputation. The “Dies irae” infiltrates the rest of the work, recurring in Variations 10 and 12 and in the finale in stentorian brass.  

Though Rachmaninov composed Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at his summer home in Switzerland, his time spent in New York City is evident in the grittier variations. When Rachmaninov and his family settled in New York in 1918, the hustle and bustle of the city began to infiltrate his musical language; you can almost hear the car horns in variation 9. What’s more, Rachmaninov was known to hit up clubs in Harlem to hear jazz legends such as Art Tatum and Fats Waller. In awe of Tatum’s technical facility, Rachmaninov said, “If this man decided to play classical music, we’re all in trouble.” You can hear the jazz pianist’s fleet-fingered technique in the swirling sixteenth notes of Variation 15.  


Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)  

Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943)  

Scored for: three flutes including piccolo, three oboes including English Horn, three clarinets including bass clarinet, three bassoons including contrabassoon, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings

Performance time: 21 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance: July 15, 1960; Theodore Bloomfield, conductor 

German composer Paul Hindemith took a more literal approach to his inspiration for Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes after Carl Maria von Weber than Maurice Ravel did for Le Tombeau de Couperin. Whereas Ravel nods obliquely to the style of the French baroque composer, Hindemith takes themes almost exactly as Weber wrote them, along with much of the surrounding formal structure. In a way, the title is a misnomer in that the piece draws on whole works by Weber, not just themes. Yet, Symphonic Metamorphosis sounds nothing like Weber. Hindemith alters almost everything around the borrowed material, inserting different harmonies and countermelodies and extending phrases.   

Despite his short life, Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826) was a seminal figure in the Romantic era, particularly in the development of German opera. Though his works are not performed so much these days, he inspired generations of German composers, Hindemith included. In 1940, choreographer Léonide Massine suggested Hindemith write a ballet for his dance company based on themes by Weber. Though they ultimately abandoned the project over artistic differences, Hindemith resurrected the score in 1943, turning it into an orchestral suite in four movements.  

The opening Allegro is full of militaristic bombast. Yet, its bravado feels off-kilter, with multiple gear shifts and a blithe oboe solo in the contrasting middle section. The movement draws on Weber’s Eight Pieces for Piano Four Hands, Op. 60, No. 4. The following Scherzo is based on the incidental music to Friedrich Schiller’s play Turandot (the very same play Puccini’s opera is based on). To evoke the ancient Chinese setting, Weber took a supposedly authentic Chinese melody from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1767 Dictionaire de Musique. Hindemith alters the theme significantly with chromatic inflections and syncopation, but he uses it incessantly, as Weber does in his incidental music. The effect is like a round, with the theme passing between different instruments and the texture building with each repetition. After the brass take up the theme as a jazzy fugue subject, a bevy of percussion instruments close out the movement, ultimately fading to nothing. The Andantino is relatively straightforward in comparison. The main theme comes from Weber’s Six Pieces for Two Pianos, Op. 10a, No. 2, while the flute solo that flits above the warm string sonorities is entirely Hindemith’s creation. Taking its Weberian material again from the Op. 60 piano duets, the final March is a bold fanfare that recalls the energy of the Allegro. Full of drama, the finale ends with a cinematic finish that just begs for a rousing ovation. 


Program Notes by Katherine Buzard