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
8 Comments

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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: What composers and what pieces give you shelter and sanctuary during troubled times?

October 1, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

A week ago, The Ear went to the inspired all-Mozart program given by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet with guest cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below center) and guest clarinetist Alicia Lee (below right), who was making her debut as a new UW faculty member.

He expected a fine performance and he was not disappointed. Indeed, he shares the same very positive reactions that critic John W. Barker expressed in his review for this blog. Here is a link to that review:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/09/30/classical-music-uws-pro-arte-quartet-and-new-uw-clarinet-professor-alicia-lee-perform-a-sublime-all-mozart-program/

But something else happened too.

The sublime music of Mozart (below) – especially the Larghetto slow second movement of the late Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, but also the other movements and the String Quartet in G Major, K. 387 -– took The Ear into another world, into a parenthesis in time.

(You can hear a live performance in Japan by Yo-Yo Ma and others in the Larghetto movement, plus the rest of the Clarinet Quintet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For a brief time – perhaps a total of about 80 or 90 minutes – The Ear was totally transported. He temporarily blocked out the political strife in Washington, D.C. and the Trump White House; the government turmoil here in Madison and around the world; and  the terrible, deadly natural disasters of floods, hurricanes and wildfires in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.

He just let the transcendent music and the performances wash over him, refreshing him with their beauty before he reemerged onto the street and into the painful reality of current events after the concert ended.

So The Ear offers a deeply felt thank you to the performers for planning and playing such a timely and therapeutic program. He needed that more than he knew. And he hopes more such concerts are in store. The times demand such balm, not as escapism but as a reminder of great good things that endure.

So here is The Ear’s question: What other composers and what other pieces or works do you find offer the same kind of sanctuary or shelter?

Leave a COMMENT with a link to a performance on YouTube if possible.


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