The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to:

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2:

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff:

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Classical music: Reading during a live concert is rude and disrespectful — like knitting, texting or checking email. Don’t do it.

April 26, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

So there I was last Saturday afternoon, in the small and intimate Morphy Recital Hall listening to the three winners of the 27th annual Beethoven Sonata Competition – the Bagatelles also can be entered — at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

Three talented students – one undergraduate and two graduate students – were playing three difficult and famous Beethoven sonatas. They had some slips, but each played very well with fluency and an understanding of the music.

Aelin Woo (below) played the dark and dramatic  Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest.”

Jonathan Thornton (below) played the Sonata in E Major, Op. 109, with its sublimely soulful theme-and-variations final movement.

And Sung Ho Yang played the mammoth “Hammerklavier” Sonata, in B-Flat Major, Op. 106, perhaps the Mount Everest of the piano repertoire because of its length and its gnarly fugue in the last movement.

Mind you, these were students — not seasoned or veteran performers. They needed all the focus, concentration and calm they could muster. And they needed attentiveness from the audience.

But they weren’t getting any help from one woman who sat right in front of me.

For most of the 90 minutes of actual playing, she carefully read an issue of The New Yorker Magazine, folding the pages and underlining passages with a ballpoint pen (below).

That shows good taste in reading.

But it also shows bad taste – very bad taste – in concert manners and etiquette. She should know better – and probably does.

Not only might she have distracted the performers who were close by on stage. She also clearly distracted several people in the audience sitting near her who commented to me—but not directly to her.

I understand their reticence. After all, I too did not talk directly to her, even though she was only a row in front of me.

For the same reason, you will see in the photo below that I did not show her face but just her companion — who also induced the rudeness and didn’t apparently say anything to her about the offensive behavior — looking at an ad in The New Yorker during intermission. And I did not try to get her name.

I am more interested in correcting or, better, preventing the behavior than in embarrassing the violator.

Now, this is not the first time such intrusive rudeness has caught the attention of The Ear.

Quite a while ago, I wrote a blog posting that was critical of a woman who sat in the front row of a concert and knitted. Then I did the same thing about people who checked e-mail and texted during a theater performance.

I think they should be kicked out – that is, politely but firmly asked to leave – unless they are willing to pay attention and be polite.

I think most readers agreed with me that such behavior is indeed rude and out-of-place.

If you go to the concert, you should listen to the music.

If you want to use music as background, stay home, put on a CD and knit or read your magazine.

And if you don’t want to go to a concert to hear the music, then stay home or go somewhere else.


But, with a few exceptions — such as the outdoors Opera in the Park, which is loud and asks audience members to text in donations, or a vocal or choral concert where you follow lyrics or text — you do not read books or magazines at a concert. It is rude to the performer and to the audience. It is also demeaning to yourself.

Even program notes should be read before or after the concert or during intermission. Reading program notes at the wrong time—when it is quiet during the performance or when you make a noise folding the page – is also rude.

My post about knitting drew a lot of reader comments, both pro and con, including comments about some special disorder or disability that makes people need to knit during a concert.

Sorry, I’m not buying that baloney. Just stay home.

Anyway, here are links to those posts about knitting and about texting during performances. Be sure to pay attention to the many comments about knitting:

And let me know what you think about reading magazines or books during a concert.

And what you think should be done?

The Ear wants to hear.

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