A Critic’s Notebook: The Piano Men

Spano and Runnicles team up to play piano transcriptions of two famous symphonies


  • Courtesy ASO
  • FACE/OFF: Donald Runnicles and Robert Spano team up to play piano transcriptions of “La Valse” and “Rite of Spring” this weekend.

It’s been a long, tough winter, and we’ve all been cooped up inside for what seems like ages. But finally the sun is starting to come out a bit more, it’s getting warmer, and everyone can step outside again at last. In other words, it’s the perfect time for a riot.

As part of an unsual program at Symphony Hall this week, Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles are teaming up to play seldom-heard piano transcriptions of two famous orchestral pieces before the symphony’s full performance of the same works: Ravel’s La Valse and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which famously caused a riot after its first performance in May of 1913.

I caught up with Spano during a break from rehearsal to ask him about the program, the challenges of sharing an instrument with another musician and the possibility of inciting public disorder at Symphony Hall.

I’m familiar with the orchestral versions of La Valse and Rite of Spring, but I don’t really know much about these piano versions. Can you tell me a little about this concert?
The seed idea of the program that Donald came up with was to have the opportunity to compare piano transcription to orchestral version. We’re playing La Valse by Ravel in the two-piano version that Ravel made and then part of the Rite of Spring in the four-hand version just before Donald conducts them. That way you get to hear right next to each other how similar and how different the two versions are, given the different medium. It’s actually kind of fascinating. With these two composers, it’s especially interesting because Stravinsky composed at the piano quite a bit. He thinks often in a keyboard kind of way. And Ravel similarly often has his own piano or four-hand versions of his orchestral works. They’re both composers with a close relationship to the keyboard, and I think you can hear that influence in their musical thinking.

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Are there any aesthetic, or even practical, issues that arise when two different artists sit down at the same instrument?
For us, it’s fun. We’ve played a lot of four-hands over the last 10-12 years, and we always have a really good time.

You said that you can hear how different the pieces are when played on the piano. Can you talk a little about some of the moods and images that the piano evokes that are different from the familiar orchestral versions?
I think the most striking difference is that suddenly there’s none of that brilliant orchestral color. So the raw musical material gets spot-lighted differently. It’s kind of like doing concert-opera. Without the theatrics and staging, you have a different focus on the music. With a piano version of a piece, I think similarly we get this different perspective on it through the difference of medium. Ravel and Stravinsky were very close to the 19th-century tradition when they were writing these pieces. There were no recordings so essentially literature was disseminated through piano versions. Piano transcriptions of orchestral works were rampant. You couldn’t hear the latest Beethoven symphony if you couldn’t get to where it was being performend, but you could get a hold of the piano version and play it for yourself.


  • JD Scott Photography for the ASO
  • RITE ON: Spano and Runnicles.

Rite of Spring infamously caused a riot when it was first performed. As a musician and a conductor, what’s your perspective on why people reacted that way? Do you yourself feel those types of big, violent emotions when you’re playing the piece?
Oh, yeah. For sure. Yeah. I think the piece is still disturbing and violent and scary. I don’t think it’s lost its edge in the last 100 years. Whatever other things that were going on that caused the riot, I have no doubt the music was still a big part of it. I think it still has the ability to exhilarate and even frighten us.

Hopefully Atlanta audiences will stay calm afterwards?
Or not.

Do you have a favorite passage in Rite of Spring?
It’s always so hard to pick favorites. But you know the little trumpet duet in Rite of Spring, near the beginning of Part 2? Nothing’s happening. It’s a tension game somehow. They just keep repeating the same material, very slow and soft. But you know... it’s not going to be pretty.

Donald Runnicles and Robert Spano perform together on piano March 13-16 at Atlanta Symphony Hall. Tickets are $24-75. For more information, visit the Atlanta Symphony.