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Watts, the BSO and Melancholy Russians Music: The great Peabody-trained pianist and the symphony take on Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.


Baltimore Symphony Orchestra audiences are in for "a good dose of Russian melancholia," says pianist Andre Watts, featured artist with the BSO this weekend.

Watts will play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, and the orchestra, under guest conductor Jerzy Semkow, will perform Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony No. 6 in B minor.

Though their composers belonged to different centuries, the pieces were written less than a decade apart. The "Pathetique" (given its title by Tchaikovsky's brother and manager, Modest) was his final work, written in 1893. Four days after the premiere, the 63-year-old composer died of cholera -- though an active conspiracy theory asserts that he was ordered to take poison by a star chamber of junior military officers because of his homosexual activities.

"Pathetique," from the Russian "patetichesky," means "passionate" or "emotional" rather than "pathetic," its widely used English cognate.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1879-1943) wrote the second of his four concertos in 1900. His first, written to service his dazzling pianistic technique, had been criticized for its empty flashiness. The composer suffered a severe case of writer's block that was finally resolved after months of treatment by an "alienist" (as psychiatrists were then called) named Nicolai Dahl, who used autosuggestion to persuade the composer to write again. The result was this popular concerto.

Peabody Conservatory alumnus Watts, 51, had been scheduled to play Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto, which is coming (perhaps inevitably) to be called the "Shine" concerto after the current film about Australian pianist David Helfgott.

Watts said he sprained his wrist about six weeks ago and decided to go with the second concerto, a piece he plays frequently, rather than overwork his injured hand re-learning the legendarily difficult third.

"It has more notes, and it's physically a little more grueling" than the second, he said in a voice thickened by a recent case of bronchitis.

He has not performed the third for almost 20 years, he said, since making a recording with conductor Seiji Ozawa.

The second concerto, Watts said, shows that Dr. Dahl's treatment of the composer was successful. "You don't hear any trace of difficulty" in its construction, he said. "It's like a symphony with an enormous piano part, and it's awfully well put together."

Andre Watts

When: 8 p.m. tonight, tomorrow, Friday and Saturday

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $25-$57

Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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