At the end of every one of his piano recitals, the late-great composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff always had to play the same encore, his Prelude in C-sharp minor. Never mind that Rachmaninoff composed that little prelude when he was just 19, and never mind that over the course of his long career, he composed many superior works. That prelude was his most popular piece, and his audience wouldn’t let him leave the concert hall until he played it.
This weekend, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero will perform American composer Tobias Picker’s Old and Lost Rivers. Never mind that Picker composed this short, gentle tone poem when he was just in his early 30s, and never mind that he has composed many more important works, including such major operas as Emmeline and An American Tragedy. Old and Lost Rivers is Picker’s prelude in C-sharp minor.
“It’s definitely my most popular piece,” says Picker. “Orchestras play it all the time, and pianists often play it as a piano arrangement.”
This weekend’s concert will also feature a Paganini Violin Concerto (with violinist Simone Porter) and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. For a preview of the concert, click here.
Picker composed Old and Lost Rivers in 1986, when he was serving as the Houston Symphony’s first-ever composer-in-residence. That year, Texas was marking its sesquicentennial, and to celebrate the Houston Symphony commissioned a series of overtures from such prominent composers as John Harbison, Charles Wuorinen and a then young John Adams. Old and Lost Rivers was Picker’s contribution. He found his inspiration in an unexpected place.
“The idea for Old and Lost Rivers came to me from a road sign,” says Picker. “I was driving from Houston east on Interstate 10 toward the Trinity River, and two of its bayous and called the Old River and Lost River. When you cross the bridge over these bayous you literally feel uplifted. I decided to compose a piece that suggested the openness of that landscape. The music also suggests an open heart and open mind.”
Picker captured the openness of the landscape through intervals that are spaced far apart. The melody and bass notes approach each other from opposite directions in a slow, quiet manner, like gently meandering streams. The Houston Symphony under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach premiered the work in 1986, and it has remained in the repertory ever since. Not long after its premiere, Picker arranged the piece into a piano solo for the virtuoso Ursula Oppens. In that format, the work has taken on a second life, becoming a popular recital piece for such renowned pianists as Andre Watts.
A native New Yorker, Picker has maintained close ties to Texas. In fact, this season he launched his most ambitious project to date, becoming the founding artistic director of Opera San Antonio. “I was approached five years ago about this project,” Picker says. “San Antonio had a wonder performance space in the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, but it didn’t have a proper opera company to perform in it. So I agreed to help. All I can say is that it is harder to start an opera company than it is to actually compose an opera.”
IF YOU GO
Nashville Symphony performs Tobias Picker’s Old and Lost Rivers. The concert also features Paganini’s Violin Concerto (with Simone Porter) and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24 and Saturday, Oct. 25 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $22 to $138 and are available here, or by calling the Schermerhorn Box Office at 615-687-6400.