Bruce Liu Plays Rachmaninoff


2022-09-09 20:00 2022-09-09 22:15 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: Bruce Liu Plays Rachmaninoff

NAC Livestream

Less than a year after his resounding First Prize win at the internationally prestigious Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, Montreal pianist Bruce Liu makes his debut with the NAC Orchestra in our season opener, bringing one of Rachmaninoff’s most popular and romantic works to Southam Hall. Joyful, playful, and just plain fun: this is Rachmaninoff’s delightful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.   Two contrasting works by Richard Strauss bookend the concert, one full of...

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Fri, September 9, 2022
NAC Livestream

Last updated: September 8, 2022

Program Notes

R. STRAUSS Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks
RACHMANINOFF Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
DINUK WIJERATNE Polyphonic Lively
R. STRAUSS Suite from Der Rosenkavalier



Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

In 1888, convinced that his artistic direction was to create new forms for every new subject, Richard Strauss embarked on writing orchestral “tone poems”. A genre of instrumental music initially developed by Franz Liszt, the symphonic poem is a one-movement work that illustrates or evokes the content of an extra-musical source, be it a story, poem, or painting. It was a novel way to structure the experience of orchestral music compared to the traditional abstract forms of the four-movement symphony.

Strauss composed Macbeth that year, followed by Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) in 1888–89. The latter two were so successful, they were quickly absorbed into the German performance repertory. In 1895, he completed Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche; it, too, was a hit and remains his most frequently performed orchestral work today.

Till is a roguish figure from medieval German folklore, who relished wreaking havoc and scandalizing authorities with his practical jokes targeting anyone too high on themselves or too rigid with their moral principles. For Strauss, rendering the prankster’s escapades in the form of a tone poem was an apt (albeit veiled) metaphor for himself as an artist disrupting the status quo of music composition at the time. The piece consists of a series of adventure episodes, vividly brought to life through the brilliant colour and scintillating textures of the composer’s orchestral writing, which demands highly virtuosic playing from all instruments.

An opening prologue has the effect of a fairy tale’s first line—"Once upon a time there was a knavish fool.” Two motifs are introduced: the first, smooth and charming, played by the violins, followed by a fanfare-like, (mock-)heroic horn solo. After an initial build-up, the clarinet intones a cheeky phrase—the charming melody sped up to evoke the prankster. Listen for this theme—a marker of Till’s presence—as it is transformed throughout the piece, during each of his antics.

After the prologue, Till goes off in search of excitement. In the first of his pranks, the music depicts him sneaking on tiptoe, then suddenly, with a cymbal crash, he bursts into a market square riding a horse. Mayhem ensues, as he scuttles away. He next appears at an elegant courtly dance, transformed into a charismatic seducer, represented by caressing phrases on solo violin and sinuous motifs in muted horns and trumpets. Later, the violin leaps high, then runs rapidly down a scale—a scream and subsequent fainting of a lady scandalized. Till moves on to a group of clergymen (bass clarinet, bassoons, and contrabassoon) in serious debate. In disguise (listen for an impish bass-line figure), he begins to mock them. The figure climbs through the instruments to the piccolo, reaching a peak, and after an orchestral raspberry, the jig is up with a gleeful polka dance. The offended clergymen attempt to collect themselves, while Till escapes again, unscathed.

The opening horn theme returns (in a different key) and builds to a climax—our prankster the swaggering hero. But an ominous drum roll and a tolling minor chord interrupts his revelry—found guilty of his offences, he’s sentenced for execution. He attempts to cajole and plead for his life, but a final shriek from the clarinet suggests it’s all over for him. In the epilogue, the smooth music of the opening returns, like an attempt to end with a moral to the tale…but in the closing moments, Till reappears to laughingly thumb his nose at us listeners.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini

In the 19th century, Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) performed with technical virtuosity so astounding rumours were circulated that his skills were bestowed on him by the Devil. He was especially known for his fiendishly difficult 24 Caprices for solo violin. The 24th Caprice in A minor is a set of variations on a catchy theme with a simple chord progression—an ideal form to show the breadth of a virtuoso’s abilities. It inspired other performer-composers to create their own sets of variations, including Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Rachmaninoff composed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra during the summer of 1934, at his Villa Senar in Hertenstein, Switzerland. On November 7 that year, he performed the premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski, and they recorded it together on December 24. It’s a tightly wrought work, with the piano part exhibiting an extensive range of textures and sonorities, while the large orchestra is used judiciously as a flexible backdrop. The overall atmosphere is somewhat serious and moody, venturing into melancholy and the diabolic in parts. 

The Rhapsody unfolds, almost continuously, as 24 variations on the theme, which has two parts, each repeated. After a dramatic introduction, the orchestra articulates the bare bones of the theme (Variation 1 – Precedente)—a witty homage to the way the finale of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony” opens. Violins then introduce the original melody, with the piano adding punctuation. From Variations 2 to 6, the piano and orchestra alternate playing delicate chattering passages and wistful long phrases.

For Variation 7, the piano intones a solemn chorale, which begins with the first phrase of the Dies irae, the medieval chant melody evoking the impending doom of the Last Judgement. It’s the first of several references to it throughout the piece. The music then becomes more demonic, with increasingly flamboyant writing for the piano, unusual timbres (violins and violas playing on the wood of the bow in Variation 9), and off-kilter rhythmic patterns. An ominous march takes over the beginning of Variation 10, against which the piano plays the Dies irae, fragments of which later fade into silence.

After a meditative turn on the theme for Variation 11, the piano breaks out in a flurry across the expanse of the keyboard. It gathers itself for several dance-like variations with the orchestra—a courtly minuet (Var. 12), a forceful number (Var. 13), and a fast-strutting march (in the major mode) with fanfares (Var. 14). The piano alone then lets loose with a dazzling elaboration on what came before, and eventually pauses on a quiet chord.

Muted strings tiptoe into Variation 16; set in the remote key of B-flat minor, the mood is introspective. Variation 17 has a searching quality, as the piano wanders on dissonant figures in its low registers. It eventually emerges from the murky depths into warmth, and the emotional heart of the work: a beautiful melody that is in fact the main theme turned upside down. In D-flat major, it’s first played tenderly by solo piano, then given to the strings, which take it to a soaring climax. It gradually subsides, and the piano closes Variation 18 in a calm, simple fashion.

In the remaining six variations, the music gets progressively energetic, the rhythms more incisive, the piano part ever more virtuosic with complex patterns, syncopations, and leaps. Significant peaks are reached in Variations 22 and 23, at which the piano bursts into flashy cadenzas. For the last variation, Rachmaninoff sets forth a formidable challenge for the pianist—even he had been nervous to play it. At the final climax, the brass proclaim the Dies irae and the piano clambers down to the finish, then bids farewell with a playful wink.


Polyphonic Lively

Sri Lankan-born Canadian Dinuk Wijeratne has established himself as a multi-award–winning composer, conductor, and pianist, throughout Canada and abroad. Several of his boundary-crossing works have been performed in recent years by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, with which he also made his conducting debut in July 2022. He describes his music as an intersection of cultures, influenced by those of his upbringing—Sri Lanka, India, and the Middle East—and expressed through the genres, compositional techniques, and mediums of Western classical music. “I’m using music to find a cultural balance that one wants to live, and to explore identity that way,” he recently noted in an article for Ottawa Chamberfest.

Wijeratne’s piece Polyphonic Lively was commissioned by Symphony Nova Scotia in 2016, when he was the orchestra’s RBC Composer-in-Residence. It was premiered by the ensemble conducted by Bernhard Gueller on October 13, 2016; in 2017, the piece won the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award, the province’s largest annual award for a work of art. Wijeratne shares the following description about his piece:

Pol·y·phon·ic (adj.) – many-voiced, [music] composed of relatively independent melodic lines or parts.

Live·ly (adj.) – full of life or vigour.

While browsing through a library book of very vibrant artwork by Paul Klee, the 20th century Swiss-German master, I was struck by the title of one of the paintings: ‘Polyphonic Lively’. Though the two adjectives back-to-back suggest that something may have been lost in translation, I felt compelled to turn these very vivid and evocative words into music. They immediately conjured up high-vibration, high-intensity ‘chatter’, and also seemed nicely suited to the celebratory nature of an orchestra’s season opener.

Music, as a communicative medium, offers unique and wonderful opportunities for stacking contrasting ideas—for ‘polyphony’. As a composer I like to explore the possibility that musical voices, each conveying an idea that is either supportive or subversive, can be allowed to coexist in a way that often eludes us in today’s world. The nature of ‘Polyphonic Lively‘ is character-driven and, through sharp turns and decisive action, its ‘journey’ is simply what the characters make of it. Its musical fabric is a multiplicity of voices, lines, and themes that decide—on a whim—when to coalesce and coexist.


Suite from Der Rosenkavalier

One of the 20th century’s operatic masterpieces, Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose) was the first real collaboration between Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who wrote the original German libretto. Completed in 1910, it premiered on January 26, 1911, at the Königliches Opernhaus in Dresden to great acclaim. It became Strauss’s most popular opera and remains firmly established in the repertory. Most audiences nowadays encounter the music of Der Rosenkavalier through the concert suite being performed tonight. It’s believed to have been created in 1944 by the conductor Artur Rodziński, who, as the then-music director of the New York Philharmonic, led the first performance in October. The following year, Boosey & Hawkes published the arrangement with the composer’s approval.

The opera’s popularity owes much to Strauss’s appealing score, which is sumptuous and sparkling, rich in sonority, colour, and texture. It’s also strikingly modern, featuring the composer’s eclectic use of anachronistic styles and genres of music, including 18th century Classical style à la Mozart, Italian opera, late-Romantic era harmony and Wagnerian leitmotivic techniques, 19th century waltz (with allusions to Johann Strauss, Jr.), and early 20th-century chromaticism. Thus, as Strauss scholar Bryan Gilliam has noted, the music creates a multilayered “text” rich in historical meaning that underscores the opera’s central themes about time, transformation, and love. Set in 1740s Vienna, the beautiful Marschallin instigates the makeover of her youthful paramour Octavian (one of opera’s great trouser roles) into the Rose Knight, and in doing so, witnesses him and Sophie, a younger woman, fall in love. Though initially conflicted, she ultimately relinquishes him to Sophie in a poignant act of letting go.

The Suite is a tour of Der Rosenkavalier’s main highlights. It begins with the music that opens the opera, depicting Octavian and the Marschallin in the throes of passion—him represented by a confident upward motif played by horns, followed by her sighs. After reaching a climax, the music relaxes to bliss. It then jumps to Octavian’s transformation into the Rose Knight in Act Two (listen for a grand version of his motif) and his presentation of the engagement rose—on behalf of Baron Ochs—to Sophie von Faninal, the daughter of a wealthy man. This is music evoking a “meet-cute”—time seems to stand still, as flutes and piccolo, celesta, two harps, and three solo violins play an enchanting progression of twinkling chords; the shy tentativeness of the two would-be lovers gradually evolve into warm tenderness.

A sudden outburst breaks the reverie, and a frenzied episode follows, leading to “Ohne mich”, the favourite waltz tune of Baron Ochs, the Marschallin’s oafish and lecherous cousin who intends to marry Sophie. It’s first sung by muted violins, as if to themselves, then is further developed, featuring yet another variant of Octavian’s motif on solo violin, and builds to a full-orchestra rendition. A sensuous transition leads into the sublime trio (“Hab’ mir’s gelobt”) of Act Three in which the Marschallin surrenders Octavian to Sophie. She leaves them to sing a duet (“Spür nur dich/Ist ein Traum”), intoned here by first violins, after which the magical music from their initial meeting returns briefly. The Suite closes with a grand waltz, with Octavian’s motif appearing once more, in resplendent fashion, before the final flourish.

Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD


  • Conductor Alexander Shelley
  • bruce-liu-darek-golik-2-cropped
    Piano Bruce Liu
  • Featuring NAC Orchestra
  • Composer Dinuk Wijeratne

NAC Orchestra

First Violins

  • Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
  • Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
  • Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
  • Marjolaine Lambert
  • Emily Westell
  • Manuela Milani
  • **Elaine Klimasko
  • Jeremy Mastrangelo
  • *Erica Miller
  • *Martine Dubé
  • *Oleg Chelpanov
  • *Marc Djokic
  • *John Corban
  • *Heather Schnarr

Second Violins

  • Mintje van Lier (principal)
  • Winston Webber (assistant principal)
  • Leah Roseman
  • Carissa Klopoushak
  • Mark Friedman
  • Karoly Sziladi
  • Frédéric Moisan
  • **Edvard Skerjanc
  • *Andéa Armijo Fortin
  • *Renée London
  • *Alexander Lozowski
  • *Sara Mastrangelo
  • *Emily Kruspe


  • Jethro Marks (principal)
  • David Marks (associate principal)
  • David Goldblatt (assistant principal)
  • Paul Casey
  • David Thies-Thompson
  • *Tovin Allers
  • *Ivan Ivanovich
  • *Kelvin Enns


  • Rachel Mercer (principal)
  • Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
  • Leah Wyber
  • Marc-André Riberdy
  • Timothy McCoy
  • *Karen Kang
  • *Desiree Abbey
  • *Fanny Marks

Double Basses

  • *Joel Quarrington (guest principal)
  • Max Cardilli (assistant principal)
  • **Hilda Cowie
  • Vincent Gendron
  • Marjolaine Fournier
  • *Paul Mach
  • *Travis Harrison


  • Joanna G'froerer (principal)
  • Stephanie Morin
  • *Kaili Maimets
  • *Dakota Martin


  • Charles Hamann (principal)
  • Anna Petersen
  • *Melissa Scott
  • *Kira Shiner

English Horn

  • Anna Petersen


  • Kimball Sykes (principal / solo)
  • Sean Rice
  • *Shauna Barker
  • *Juan Olivares


  • Darren Hicks (principal / solo)
  • Vincent Parizeau
  • *Ben Glossop
  • *Alex Eastley


  • Lawrence Vine (principal)
  • Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
  • Elizabeth Simpson
  • Lauren Anker
  • Louis-Pierre Bergeron
  • *Olivier Brisson


  • Karen Donnelly (principal)
  • Steven van Gulik
  • *Michael Fedyshyn


  • **Donald Renshaw (principal)
  • *Steve Dyer (guest principal)
  • Colin Traquair

Bass Trombones

  • *Zachary Bond


  • Chris Lee (principal)


  • *Aaron McDonald (guest principal)


  • Jonathan Wade
  • *Andrew Johnson
  • *Matthew Moore
  • *Dan Morphy
  • *Louis Pino


  • *Angela Schwarzkopf
  • *Alanna Ellison


  • * Olga Gross

Principal Librarian

  • Nancy Elbeck

Assistant Librarian

  • Corey Rempel

Personnel Manager

  • Meiko Lydall

Assistant Personnel Manager

  • Laurie Shannon

*Additional musicians
**On leave