Spectacular Finale: Pianist Rita Fandrich to Perform with Imperial Symphony Orchestra

Rita Fandrich will perform the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saens in her last big performance. Calvin Knight/Florida Southern College

If you have one last big performance to give, you might as well perform something memorable.

When pianist Rita Fandrich was asked by the Imperial Symphony Orchestra to be a guest soloist, the longtime Lakeland resident chose to perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

The fiendishly difficult Saint-Saëns concerto, one of the French master’s best and most popular works, is one that she taught often during her 43 years as associate professor of music at Florida Southern College. But this is the first time she has ever performed it, and as the shoe is on the other foot, Fandrich has come to a realization.

“I probably didn’t realize how difficult it is,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s been a nice project for me, challenging and enjoyable.”

Fandrich will perform the concerto as part of an all-French program in the Imperial Symphony’s Masterworks concert at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Youkey Theatre at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. For ticket information, click here.

Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921) was a hero of the French Romantic movement. He is today chiefly remembered for his Symphony No. 3 (the theme of the final movement was used in the movie “Babe”), his opera “Samson and Delilah” and for “Carnival of the Animals,” a suite often played at concerts for young people, with pieces representing the character of various animals. The Piano Concerto No. 2 includes several elements for which he was known, including an opening resembling the music of Bach, a whimsical melody in the second movement and a dramatic conclusion.

“It has a lot of audience appeal. It’s not a dark and cerebral kind of work. It’s on the bright side,” Fandrich said.

Throughout, the pianist must carry a load of staggering virtuosity. “It’s a delightful piece. It requires command of the classical technique, such as performing Beethoven or Chopin. “It takes quite a bit of preparation. It’s almost like preparing for the Olympics,” she said.

This will be just Fandrich’s second appearance with the Imperial Symphony, despite her many years at Florida Southern College. A number of family and friends are coming to hear what she said will be her swan song.

“Of course I was eager to do it,” Fandrich said. “But I think this is going to be my last big project. I’ll do smaller things, but I don’t think I’m going to venture anything this big.”

To extend the dive into French Romanticism, the concert will also include the Symphony in D by César Franck (1822 – 1890, who was Belgian by birth but spent most of his career in France) and the Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach (1819 – 1880).

Franck was a successful organist and teacher, but his symphony is one of only a few works for which he is remembered as a composer. It marries elements of French and German musical traditions (which made it unpopular in 19th-century France) in a three-movement work.

“The main themes come back again in each movement,” said Imperial Symphony Music Director Mark Thielen. “He gives everyone something to play. He passes things around the orchestra, from the flute to the oboe to the violins.”

Thielen said the first two movements build up slowly to the robust finale. “The audience has to be patient,” he said. “It’s not like the weather in Florida.”

“Orpheus in the Underworld” is a comic operetta loosely based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The overture includes highlights from the work, including its most famous number, the “Galop Infernal,” depicting a wild party among the gods in Hades. It was borrowed by bawdy French dance halls and became known as the “can-can.”

“It’s a wonderful piece,” Thielen said of the overture. “It has lovely melodies, and it ends so delightfully.”

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