When it comes to the monumental Third Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninov, the pianist Natasha Paremski comes by her affinity for it naturally.
Born in Moscow, where she began piano studies at age 4 before emigrating to the United States with her family at age 8, Paremski’s family insisted on speaking and writing Russian, reading Russian books and watching Russian movies at home in Northern California. It took a move to the East for her to enter more fully in American culture, and while she’s been a citizen since 2001 and currently lives in New York, she still feels a connection to her first homeland.
“I do feel extremely Russian, but in an American context,” Paremski said. “I would say I’m really both. I’m Russian and an American. I’m sort of a 50/50 mélange of both.”
Tonight and Tuesday night, the 25-year-old pianist will give the final two performances of the Rachmaninov Third (in D minor, Op. 30) in a current series with the South Florida Symphony. The concerts, which also feature works by Debussy, Richard Strauss and Sibelius, will be conducted by Sebrina Maria Alfonso.
Tonight’s concert is at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, and Tuesday night’s is at the Crest Theatre at the Delray Beach Center for the Arts.
The Rachmaninov concerto, composed in 1909 by a man who was one of the greatest virtuosos on his instrument, is usually considered one of the most difficult in the repertoire, and Paremski concurs. “I would have to say that this is probably the hardest concerto, if only just in terms of sheer stamina,” she said.
But like much of Rachmaninov’s work, his highly expressive, richly melodic writing is prey to performer overindulgence, which Paremski said does the music “a disservice.” She argues that the concerto’s wealth of inner voices is critical to its aesthetic.
“I would say the polyphony is one of the main challenges of this piece because there are so many polyphonic lines. And while maybe some less experienced people might kind of try to fake away from the polyphony, you just can’t. Every single note makes sense,” she said.
“You’d think, ‘Oh, God, there’s so many notes, maybe we can just leave some out.’ And you just can’t, because every single note is as meaningful as if it were a Bach French Suite or a fugue or something. It’s really intensely crucial to the texture.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t find plenty of large-scale emotion on display amid all those notes, starting with its memorable, simple opening theme, stated very plainly in quiet octaves over murmuring strings.
“It takes you on a journey, and every time you come back to that theme, you’re a different person because of that journey, whether you’re a listener or performer,” Paremski said. “There is so much agony in the first movement. I just can’t imagine the depths of hell that Rachmaninov had to draw on to convey these emotions … Honestly, I don’t really know a lot of pieces that are so passionately woeful.”
But she also thinks there are “jazzy moments” in the concerto, especially the second movement, which she said sounds to her like an improvisation.
“There’s basically one motive,” she said, and then sings it. “That’s an extremely short phrase for Rachmaninov … I would imagine that he more or less sat down at the piano and played it as it’s written, just kind of improvised it and jotted some things down. It feels incredibly improvisatory.”
And while the concerto ends in positive emotional territory, Paremski said it shares with all Russian music an innate quality of suffering.
“Even when it’s extremely joyous, it always comes from a place of having overcome something,” she said. “It makes the joyful moments so much more bittersweet because of what came before … The end of the concerto is extremely joyous, but you feel like you got there after this incredible journey of searching the depths of your soul.”
Paremski made her debut at age 9 with the El Camino Youth Symphony in California, and by age 15, she made her first appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A 2007 graduate of the Mannes College of Music in New York, Paremski has released several recordings, including one of the now-rarely heard Concerto No. 4 of the Russian pianist and pedagogue Anton Rubinstein.
“It’s a great blueprint for all the Russian concertos that followed,” she said. “It’s not as complicated as all the other Russian concertos and maybe it’s not as satisfying, but it’s a great postcard in time, and it’s a beautifully written piece.”
Due out later this year is another concerto disc featuring the ever-durable Concerto No. 1 of Tchaikovsky (in B-flat minor, Op. 23) and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Op. 43) of Rachmaninov. She recorded it with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London and the French conductor Fabien Gabel, recently appointed music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra.
Paremski has racked up an impressive series of awards in her young career, including the Classical Recording Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year in 2010, and the 2006 Gilmore Young Artist Award. She was featured in a 2007 BBC special about the life of Tchaikovsky, and she joined rocker Sting and his wife Trudy Styler in 2009 for a theater piece about Robert and Clara Schumann called Twin Spirits.
She also likes to champion new music, and has recorded a sonata written for her by Gabriel Kahane and has played works by Fred Hersch and John Corigliano in concert. But she doesn’t want to specialize in contemporary pieces to the exclusion of everything else.
“I only play the music I really believe in. I’m not going to be one of those artists who just plays new music. There are a lot of musicians who just champion everything, and my hat’s off to them. Especially when you have to play something really hard without the precedent of other performances or having heard it,” she said. “But when I do find new music I really believe in, I go out of my way to play it, record it, and commission it, because I think it’s really important to keep the creative juices flowing in our business.”
She’s also taken advantage of other performance opportunities outside the concert hall, such as giving recitals at the New York nightclub Le Poisson Rouge, which has become a popular classical alt-venue.
“I love doing things like that because you can reach out to people in a more intimate setting. It’s an unusual place for a typical classical audience to go. I like the atmosphere of places like that because it’s so easy to connect to you audience, easier than from the stage to the orchestra or balcony.”
And she’s interested in doing more of that in the future.
“It’s a great way to keep an audience interested in classical music, to keep it relevant,” she said.
Natasha Paremski appears with the South Florida Symphony at 7:30 tonight in the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, and at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Crest Theatre at Old School Square, Delray Beach. The program also includes Sibelius’ Pohjola’s Daughter, Strauss’ Macbeth, and Debussy’s Marche Ecossaise. Call 954-462-0222 (Broward) or 561-243-7922, ext. 1 (Delray Beach), or visit www.southfloridasymphony.org.