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: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: A play about Sergei Rachmaninoff’s composing block sounds so good, The Ear wants to see it staged in Madison.

July 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is a famous story about writer’s block –- or, in this case, composer’s block.

The young Russian Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) was so devastated by bad reviews of his first symphony in 1897 that he fell into a deep depression and couldn’t compose music for three years.

rachmaninoffyoung

But then he sought the help of a hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl who kept repeating, “You will write a great piano concerto.”

And eventually he did.

Out of those sessions came Rachmaninoff’s popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. (You can hear the concerto in a YouTube video that features pianist Yuja Wang at the bottom.)

Now that legendary incident has been depicted in a new play called “Preludes.”

Here is a review by critic Ben Brantley that appeared in The New York Times.

It makes The Ear hope that one of the local theater companies will produce it, much as they did with the play about music education called “Master Class,” written by famed playwright Terrence McNally about the temperamental opera diva Maria Callas and some students.

“Preludes” is a chamber drama in which actors play multiple parts, many of the other famous artistic figures of the day such as the singer Fyodor Chaliapin (below right, played by Joseph Keckler in a photo by Tina Fineberg for The New York Times) and the writer-playwright Anton Chekhov.

Rachmaninoff and Chaliapin Tina Fineberg NYT

It also involves two Rachmaninoffs (below in a photo by Tina Fineberg for The New York Times): one, called Rach, is the composer, portrayed by Gabriel Ebert, left; the other, called Rachmaninoff, is the pianist played by Or Matias.

Rac and Rachmaninoff Tina Fineberg NYT

Those of us who are not creative artists find it endlessly fascinating to try to get inside the head of important artistic figures.

Moreover, the drama gets a rave review that whets one’s appetite to see this play about a composer who was once dismissed as hopelessly sentimental but whose gorgeously melodic and stirringly harmonic music has had remarkable staying power and appeal – and continues to do so.

See what you think and whether the play stimulates your own curiosity.

Here is a link to the review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/16/theater/review-preludes-shows-rachmaninoff-failed-by-his-muse-and-killing-time.html?_r=0


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