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: UW-Madison Professor Marc Vallon offers a personal appreciation of the pioneering French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez who has died at 90. Plus, this Sunday afternoon Wisconsin Public Radio starts a 13-week series of concerts by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

January 9, 2016
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ALERT: This Sunday at 2 p.m., Wisconsin Public Radio (WERN-FM 88.7 in the Madison area) will start a new weekly two-hour broadcast series. It features 13 weeks of live recorded concerts given by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. This Sunday’s music, conducted by MSO music director Edo de Waart, includes three outstanding works: the Four Sea Interludes from the opera “Peter Grimes” by Benjamin Britten; the beautiful Cello Concerto by Sir Edward Elgar with soloist Alisa Weilerstein; and the lyrical Symphony No. 8 in G Major by Antonin Dvorak. 

For more information about the series and performers, visit:

http://www.wpr.org/programs/milwaukee-symphony-orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

This past Tuesday, avant-garde French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (below) died at his home in Baden Baden, Germany. He was 90. No cause of death was given.

Pierre Boulez obit portrait

Just last year saw celebrations of Boulez, on the occasion of his 90th  birthday, around the world.

That included one here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music by bassoonist and Professor Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) who studied and worked with Boulez and the famous Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris.

Professor Vallon generously agreed to write a personal reminiscence and appreciation of Pierre Boulez for The Ear.

Here it is:

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

By Marc Vallon

I had the privilege to work with Pierre Boulez in the early 1980s, a couple of years after he founded the Ensemble Intercontemporain (below) in Paris, the first-ever fully salaried ensemble devoted to contemporary music.

Ensemble Intercontemporain

Boulez was a very demanding conductor (below) and everyone would come to the rehearsals very prepared. If you were not, you would likely take the sting of his sarcastic humor.

I remember a situation when the flutist kept fumbling on a tricky passage in Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony for Wind Instruments. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, he made the mistake of saying, “I don’t understand, it worked perfectly at home,” to which Boulez replied, “Well then, perhaps we should play the concert in your living room.”

Conductor and composer Pierre Boulez from France conducts the Lucerne Festival Acadamy Orchestra during a concert at the Lucerne Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Keystone, Sigi Tischler)

Conductor and composer Pierre Boulez from France conducts the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra during a concert at the Lucerne Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Keystone, Sigi Tischler)

I was involved in the first performance of the work often considered as Boulez’s masterpiece, Répons for orchestra and live electronics (heard at bottom in a YouTube video). It was a fascinating window into Boulez’s compositional process.

During the two-week rehearsal period, the parts would be collected after each session and would come back on our music stands the next day with numerous additions of grace notes and changed rhythms and dynamics. The longer we worked, the more intricate and multi-layered the piece became.

This is not surprising if one remembers Boulez’s definition of good music: It is complex and can be looked at from so many different angles that it ultimately resists full analysis.

Another important contribution that Boulez brought to the French musical scene, and the artistic world in general, was the often explosive radicalism of his ideas.

From “Schoenberg is dead” to “We have to blow up the opera houses,” who else would proclaim the end of serialism or attack the conservatism of established opera houses in such provocative terms?

Boulez’s public aversion to any artistic conservatism was, in the 1970s, a much-needed antidote to an international musical scene that was often too easily tempted to fill concert halls by programming symphonies by Tchaikovsky again and again.

It is still needed today. “Boulez est mort,” but his fight for the endless renewing of musical creation should go on.

For more obituaries and appreciations of Pierre Boulez, who served as music director of the New York Philharmonic and was a major guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, here are four sources:

The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/07/arts/music/pierre-boulez-french-composer-dies-90.html?_r=0

National Public Radio or NPR:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/01/06/462176284/french-composer-pierre-boulez-dies-at-90

ABC-TV NEWS:

http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/pierre-boulez-leading-figure-classical-music-dies-90-36121322

And here is a terrific and insightful personal appreciation of Pierre Boulez, with a link to current issues and events in classical music, by Anthony Tommasini, the senior classical music critic for The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/07/arts/music/recalling-pierre-boulez-a-conductor-composer-with-an-ear-to-the-alternative.html?_r=0

 


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