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10 odd facts about Handel’s Messiah

This weekend Handel’s Messiah gets pulled out at the Classical Girl household, an annual event during Triduum (more formally referred to as the Paschal Triduum), that three-day sacred period commencing with Holy Thursday and culminating with Easter. Although Messiah was written in three parts to depict Jesus’ life and resurrection, and therefore works for Christmas as well as Easter, it has Easter morning written all over it for me. Check out my blog about it HERE.

Messiah is an oratorio, which is sort of like an opera without the acting, grand pantomiming and expensive sets, and tells a sacred story, not a racy one. Handel composed over twenty oratorios. He’d composed plenty of operas (final tally: forty), but they were more expensive to produce and the popularity of his opera works had begun fading. In 1741 he decided to take a break from it all, and leave his London base for a sabbatical in Ireland. It was here that he composed Messiah. It premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, during Easter season.

Want to listen to it as you read? Here you go! (A three-minute BBC introduction precedes the music, which starts at 3m40.)

But what you really want to know are the odd facts, right? So, without further ado…

 

                                       10 Odd Facts about Handel and his Messiah

1) The original [German] spelling and pronunciation of George Frideric Handel’s name is Georg (GAY-org) Friedrich Händel (HEN-del). His father was a barber-surgeon (I know, right?) and Georg’s original game plan for life was to study and enter the practice of law. While in law school, he started playing the organ for a local church, and, well, that started the composing music ball rolling.

2) Handel was British but not, just like King George I was British but not. King George I was German-born, from Hanover. (He is also the one who had that terrible time with those pesky “American” colonists who revolted.) Before the young Handel moved to England, he’d served as Kapellmeister for George (then the Elector of Hanover) in Germany before he became King of England. Once they were both in England, well, it was likely an easy choice to stay affiliated. Handel loved England, and 1726 he became a naturalized British subject.

3) By 1741, Handel had fallen deeply into debt, and was even threatened with debtors’ prison. Instead, he departed to Ireland for a sabbatical, where he wrote his Messiah.

4) Handel composed Messiah in just twenty-four days, a staggering feat, given the original score is 259 pages. Yikes. That’s some productive off-time. (Author’s note to self: sign up for sabbatical.)

5) In spite of the fact that Handel himself was in bad shape financially, he premiered Messiah in Dublin as a benefit, to help out some of the inmates stuck in debtors’ prison. The benefit performance was a rousing success, and 143 debtors were released from prison as a result.

6) As a gesture of thanks, Handel’s Irish backers returned the favor by paying off some of his own London debts.

7) The first London performance, a year later, wasn’t as unequivocal a success. Criticism was voiced that the work’s subject matter was “too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singers.” Handel tried to appease the conservatives by using a different name, calling it the “New Sacred Oratorio” instead of “Messiah.” Even then, however, the London reception of the production remained cool, and the oratorio was only performed three times that year instead of the anticipated six. Until, a few years later, at the London Foundlings’ Hospital…

8) Handel performed a mix of new music and older pieces including the “Hallelujah” chorus at London’s Foundling Hospital, in 1750, for a charity concert. At the time, Messiah hadn’t made its splash with London audiences (see above), but the concert was so well received that Handel was invited back the next year, where he performed the entire Messiah oratorio. Performances of Messiah became an Eastertime tradition there until the 1770s. Earnings from many early performances of the oratorio were used to help the poor, needy, orphaned, widowed, and sick. (A great article about this by The Telegraph can be found HERE.)

9) The complete oratorio of Messiah has fifty movements, but it was otherwise a modest production. In the years after Handel’s death, Messiah was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. Mozart, as well as a few other composers, played around with it, offering a fresher (at the time) adaptation. Today you can buy the Mozart adaptation, the original, an abridged version, popular excerpt version, Part I & II version, etc.

10) Audiences typically stand during the “Hallelujah Chorus” movement of Messiah. One story as to why dates back to when King George II (son of King George I) heard it being performed for the first time. Story has it, he was so dazzled, so overcome with emotion, he rose to his feet automatically. And when the king rises, all rise. So, there it is. Fact or myth? You make your own call.

Bonus fact: Handel died on Good Friday, 1759. He was buried, with honors, at Westminster Abbey, during which time a portion of his Messiah was performed. He will be forever remembered for his contribution. Somewhat poignantly, once after being congratulated on providing audiences with such fine entertainment, he’d replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. For I wished to make them better.”

Oh, Mr. Handel. That, you did. And for that, the world will be forever grateful.

Diablo Ballet Celebrates 23 Years

It was an evening of celebration and great dance as Diablo Ballet fêted its 23rd anniversary Thursday night at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. Adhering to Artistic Director Lauren Jonas’ mission to offer diverse and relevant works that inspire and engage, the company presented Sally Streets’ 1994 Three to Tango, excerpts from Petipa’s Raymonda, and Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination. The celebration program included a short film, plus a slideshow that commemorated the company’s PEEK outreach program, to live music performed by Minor F Jazz Quartet (comprised of students from the Oakland School for the Arts), all of which demonstrate the wonderful synergy between company and community. That Diablo Ballet thrives at twenty-three years is no small feat, and no coincidence.

The 23rd anniversary is referenced in a charming fashion through Three to Tango. In 1994, choreographer and Diablo Ballet artistic advisor, Sally Streets, set this work on Lauren Jonas in the company’s inaugural season. On Thursday night, pianist Andrea Liguori (who performed it in 1994 too), was joined by by cellist Andres Vera for a lively rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s alluring tango music. New company member Felipe Leon, replacing Jamar Goodman for the performance, dazzled with his clean, articulated movements and focus in this classical-based choreography with Argentine twists. Also new to the company is Oliver-Paul Adams who partnered the reliably excellent Rosselyn Ramirez in a pas de deux with proficiency if not particular ardor. Streets’ stylized blend gave us partnered pirouettes with a knee in parallel passé, some ending in a tango step. Ramirez stretched into a beautiful 180 degree partnered arabesque, and the men’s solo passages showcased their strong scissoring leaps.

Oliver-Paul Adams and Rosselyn Ramirez in Three To Tango, photo by Aris Bernales

Marius Petipa’s 1898 Raymonda, like his earlier creation, The Sleeping Beauty, seems to embody Russian Imperial courtliness and grace. Set to Glazunov, it’s old school classicism at its finest. Thursday night’s performance gave us the Pas de Deux and coda, staged by Joanna Berman, company régisseur and former San Francisco Ballet principal. Raymond Tilton and Jackie McConnell, as the pas de deux couple, mostly succeeded, although a few initial rushed poses kept McConnell from looking fluid, her movements fully inhabited, stately and deliberate. Otherwise, the two were a pleasure to watch on the Lesher Center stage. Costumes designed by Sandra Woodall (and Renee Rothmann, Rebecca Crowell Berke), courtesy of Marin Ballet, looked great. A partnered arabesque released from a challenging balance for McConnell, reminiscent of Aurora’s “Rose Adagio” in The Sleeping Beauty, gave way to a confident, self-supported pose. Tilton, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer, is a perfect fit for classics like this. A solid final partnered pirouette ended the piece impressively for both dancers, and the coda that followed, which included three more couples, a flurry of tutus and brisk, well-rehearsed movement, was well executed.

Diablo Ballet

Jackie McConnell in Raymonda, photo by Aris Bernales

Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination, a 2016 world premiere, is set to Camille Saint-Saêns’ Le Carnaval des Animaux, and conjures the rich, colorful inner world of a boy’s imagination. Christian Squires reprised his role as “Seven,” or “Our Protagonist” with the same engaging, theatrical flair as last year. Some roles seemed more refined this year, such as the buoyant gleefulness of Pippas (Jackie McConnell), Seven’s imaginary playmate, which hit all the right buttons for me, without ever feeling over-the-top. I particularly enjoyed McConnell’s red-sneakered, flex-footed leaps, their momentary suspension midair. Standouts this year included “Constellations” a dazzler with fiber optic costumes for the women that, along with Jack Carpenter’s dimmed, dappled onstage lighting, simulated a midsummer’s night. Partnered leaps and lifts (Amanda Farris, Larissa Kogut, Rosselyn Ramirez with Oliver-Paul Adams, Jamar Goodman and Raymond Tilton) looked nothing short of magical. “Colors of the Rainbow,” too, offered visual appeal and strong dancing by Adams, Tilton and Felipe Leon. McConnell and Squires charmed in “The Shadow,” and later were poignant in their depiction of a boy outgrowing his imaginary friend. Dekkers’ choreography flows throughout, engaging and creative. An all-cast pillow fight at the end, everyone now clad in onesie pajamas (all costumes designed by Christian Squires), feathers flying, was just plain fun.

Carnival of the Animals

Christian Squires and Amanda Farris in Carnival of the Imagination, photo by Bérenger Zyla

Twenty-three years as a successful dance company is indeed something to celebrate, and Artistic Director Lauren Jonas had every reason to be proud of this troupe and the full house and enthusiastic audience Thursday night brought. Really, it does the heart good in these times to see a vibrant local community supporting a vibrant dance company. While a trip to Walnut Creek might not prove possible for everyone (good news: they tour the region), Walter Yamazaki’s short films featuring Diablo Ballet give all a chance to see these talented dancers. Thursday night marked the world premiere of Libera; gorgeously produced, with an original score by Justin Levitt, narrated by Jamar Goodman.  Here’s one from 2015, AETERNA XXI created by Yamazaki for their 21st Anniversary celebration, with a gorgeous score by Brian Crutchfield. Enjoy.

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

Violin Concerto CD               

The violin concerto repertoire is so rich and satisfying, I’m embarrassed to admit that, prior to becoming an adult beginner on the violin in 2005, I was only familiar with a few of them. This, from a self-proclaimed classical music fanatic. Whoops.

But maybe that’s you, too. Now, I know some of my readers are violin peeps and this list of top violin concertos will not produce any surprises, but I have a hunch there are plenty of you out there, more ballet-oriented, who are more familiar with piano repertoire. Or maybe you’re a newcomer to classical music in general. This is the list for you.

One thing I should add. Most of these hail from the Romantic Era and beyond. You therefore won’t see works before 1806, before Beethoven’s opus burst forth, eras that would include concertos by Mozart (five of them, written in his late teens), Vivaldi (something like 230) Bach (two for solo violin, one for two violins). Also I didn’t include Paganini (who wrote six) who, like Beethoven, sort of straddled the Classical and Romantic Era.

So, without further ado, here are my personal faves, in no particular order. If the composer has more than one violin concerto, I’ve highlighted the one I prefer. If you click on the composer’s name, it will bring you to a YouTube link of the concerto.

The Classical Girl

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

  1. Tchaikovsky (in D major, Op. 35, 1878)
  2. Brahms (in D major, Op. 77, 1878)
  3. Sibelius (in D minor, Op. 47, 1905 – A staggering piece of work – my blog + link HERE)
  4. Bruch (No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, 1867; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44, 1878; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 58, 1891 – and all three are worthy! Blogged about Bruch HERE)
  5. Korngold (in D major, Op. 35, 1945)
  6. Beethoven (in D major, Op. 61, 1806 – Note to self: blog about this one SOON)
  7. Barber (Op. 14, 1939)
  8. Saint-Saëns (No. 3 in B minor; his No. 1 and No. 2 aren’t often performed)
  9. Mendelssohn (in E minor, Op. 64, 1845)

And this is where it gets very tricky, because there are SO many wonderful violin concertos still, so here are ten contenders for my 10th spot:

  1. Shostakovich (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77, 1955; No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129, 1967)
  2. Britten (Op. 15, 1939)
  3. Dohnányi (No. 1 in D minor, Op. 27, 1915: No. 2 in C minor, Op. 43, 1950)
  4. Bartok (No. 1, BB 48a, 1908, but published posthumously, 1956; No. 2, BB 117, 1938)
  5. Dvorák (in A minor, Op. 53, 1879)
  6. Wieniawski (No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1853; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22, 1862
  7. Goldmark (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 28, 1877; he composed a No. 2 that was never published)
  8. Berg (Written in twelve-tone, Op. ?, 1935)
  9. Prokofiev (No. 1 in D major, Op. 18, 1923; No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, 1935.
  10. Schumann (in D minor, published posthumously) The Stravinsky VC really belongs here but I am sentimental about the Schumann and its otherworldly story – I blogged about it HERE

And yes, I know, you violin peeps are sitting up now, exclaiming, “Wait! No Lalo? No Viotti? No Khachaturian or Elgar?” Glazunov. Hindemith. Ligeti. Nielsen. Szymanowski. Previn. Walton. And Vieuxtemps certainly deserves to be on the list; he wrote a whopping seven violin concertos. And then there are the hard-on-the-ear but well respected concertos that deserve a mention, like the Schoenberg, the Schuman (note, spelled with only one “n,” an important differentiation to recognize). Berg’s concerto, while atonal, somehow manages to conjure something beautifully expressive and bittersweet – no small feat!

And STILL there are more. That’s the fun thing about really getting to know the violin concerto repertoire, and the violin repertoire in general. There are always more treasures to discover.

Give each one a listen and let me know which one is your favorite. As for me, if I had to be stranded on a desert island with a CD player [and somehow, magically, a lifetime supply of batteries] and only three concertos, I think it would have to be the Sibelius, Brahms and Mendelssohn. Yikes. Tough choices. Maybe the Beethoven would have to switch out one of the latter two. With the Tchaikovsky next in line. Only please don’t make me choose.

I could tell a story about each and every one of these concertos and/or their composer’s creative journey, but that would make for a hell of a long blog. Instead I’ll give each one its own blog, at which time I’ll return here and leave the link. In the meantime, here are a few blogs I enjoyed reading that offer great details on their own Top 10 picks (you’ll see a lot of similarities).

  • Stephen Klugewicz at The Imaginative Conservative HERE.
  • Gramophone UK HERE

SFB’s “Frankenstein” is well worth checking out

Joseph Walsh in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson))

It was the perfect setting, weather-wise, for attending San Francisco Ballet’s Frankenstein last Saturday night, following Friday’s North American premiere of this co-commission with the Royal Ballet. Storm clouds scudded over the darkened February skies, recent rains abated, an uneasy truce between storms that you knew would not last. Frankenstein weather. Something big was about to happen.

People tend to draw their Frankenstein acumen through one of two sources: the 1818 Gothic classic by Mary Shelley, or the 1931 movie adaptation (or, truth be told, through Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein). The latter group might not be aware of the love story the original contains, nor the chaos wreaked because of love withheld. Choreographer Liam Scarlett calls his production, “a story of betrayal, curiosity, life, death, and above all, love.” This is Scarlett’s first full-length ballet; at only thirty, creator of the acclaimed 2014 Hummingbird, among others, he’s currently the Royal Ballet’s artist in residence. Employing the talents of John Macfarlane’s stage and costume design, David Finn’s lighting and Finn Ross’s projection design, this production is a feast for the eyes.

One of the benefits of attending the second night of a production is seeing the second cast. They were brilliant, to the last. In addition to powerful performances from Max Cauthorn and Lauren Strongin, as Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza, and Taras Domitro as The Creature, Julia Rowe and Angelo Greco delivered memorably as well. Act 1, set in late 18th century Geneva, allowed us to witness the metamorphosis of two young friends—Victor and the orphaned Elizabeth taken in by the Frankenstein family—who grow to fall in love. Cauthorn and Strongin paired wonderfully as young adults in love in a tender, lyrical pas de deux, replete with rapturous back arches, leaps, partnered turns that morphed into lifts. Both are dancing well beyond their rank—Cauthorn is in the corps and Strongin is a soloist—and surely promotions are imminent. (Please, Mr. Tomasson, promote Max Cauthorn now. Tonight. He’s earned it.) **Editor’s note on March 13th – Cauthorn’s promotion to soloist was just announced! Yippee! Big congrats, Max!

As this story goes, the death of Victor’s mother in childbirth throws a pall over the household on the eve of Victor’s departure to medical school. There, at Ingolstadt University, the grieving Victor takes keen interest in his professor’s lectures on the possibility of reanimation. Macfarlane’s circular anatomy theater set is spectacular, period-specific, featuring an 18th century replicate electrostatic machine, with wires and tubes and such that emit staticky  pops and snaps.

One of the ballet’s structural problems reveals itself around this time. At close to three hours, the production runs long. The fifty-minute first act has five scenes (and a prologue). Although the story delivered up to this point preps the audience nicely for what is to come, it might prove overlong to those anxious for the “real” drama to begin. Instead, ensemble dancing within each scene often seems presented to assure plenty of “ballet” and not just pantomime exposition. That said, a medical students’ cavort was charming, and soon a quartet of solemn-faced nurses in long skirts joined them, assistants to the Professor (James Sofranko). It began to feel odd, though, within this academic, institutional setting. Some places, like churches, libraries, psych wards, don’t lend themselves aesthetically to ballet. The presence of a cadaver splayed out behind the dancers on an observation table likely didn’t help. And there is simply no way to watch someone dance with a dismembered limb or a brain in a jar without it seeming either creepy or hilarious, or a mix of both. Which may not have been the goal.

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson))

But finally, after a tavern ensemble frolic, the long awaited moment: Victor’s return to the anatomy lab that stormy evening, his inspired efforts, the patched-together cadaver being raised to the skies as lightning flashes all around, the machine exploding in a pyrotechnic dazzle, accompanied by Lowell Lieberman’s wonderfully dramatic commissioned score. It was spectacular, operatic in its intensity.

Taras Domitro, as The Creature brought to life, delivered an unforgettable performance. Costumed in an unearthly pale unitard with the to-be-expected stitches and gashes and blood speckles that worked brilliantly and showcased Domitro’s superb form and musculature, he brought a nuanced vulnerability to the role. You could almost love this Creature. You’re certainly stirred to pity at his plight, as Victor recoils in horror and rejects his creation. The Creature’s “other-ness” was cleverly depicted in quirks: little head rolls, cocking the head in a not-normal way. We, as the audience, get to follow his evolution. In the beginning, he can hardly walk, but learns by observation and imitation. By the final act, he has discovered how to effortlessly fit in to a crowd of waltzing revelers, employing a “blink and you’ve missed him” ninja presence that rattles Victor terribly, who continues to reject this horror he’s created. The power The Creature now holds is formidable—but what powers The Creature, in turn, is the childlike longing to be accepted, loved by his creator, to not be so alone.

The story doesn’t end well, as you probably know (unless your reference is Young Frankenstein, which ends quite adorably). Victor’s attempts to block out his deed and The Creature fail. The Creature’s failed attempts at love and acceptance have curdled into maniacal rage. And yet, still the longing. In the final scene, Elizabeth’s sorrowful pas de deux with The Creature (who has learned to perfectly imitate Victor’s movements) is so poignantly danced by both, it breaks your heart to watch. So does the ensuing pas de deux between The Creature and Victor, desperate and grappling, overflowing with raw emotion. These two final pas de deux showcase Scarlett’s choreographic brilliance, and the dancers at their best. Utterly unforgettable.

Vitor Luiz in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson)

I loved this ballet. I didn’t love it because I thought it was a perfect ballet and did everything right. I loved it because it was a great story to slip into, with fabulous sets, music and dancing, and the honest human—or inhuman—emotions conveyed. In its scope and appeal, it’s very cinematic and, as such, holds tremendous potential to draw in new viewers, particularly males who might not otherwise consider going to the ballet on the grounds that it’s too girly. Even my teen son told me, “now that’s one ballet I would go to.”

Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow?

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op 18 is the kind of music that grips you by the collar and draws you into its world instantly, with its rich orchestral textures and dramatic fervor. I’ve loved it for years. Decades. Last weekend I attended the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1, and was dazzled by the program’s second ballet, Jiri Bubeníček’s “Fragile Vessels,” set to—you guessed it—Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Thoughts vary about Rachmaninov’s Late Romantic music, produced during an era that had begun testing its boundaries (think Mahler) or breaking them entirely (think Schoenberg and his atonality, his twelve-tone technique). Rachmaninov wanted nothing to do with that. He saw himself as “the last of the Romantics” who reflected the philosophy of Old Russia “with its overtones of suffering and unrest, its pastoral but tragic beauty, its ancient and enduring glory.” Many classical music purists today consider Rachmaninov’s music to be excessively sentimental, admittedly lush but too similar-sounding once you’ve heard one concerto. The tremendous popularity of his Piano Concerto No. 2, in fact, seems to argue their case that it’s, perhaps, a bit lowbrow for classical tastes.

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow? Certainly it’s extremely accessible to non-classical music lovers. It’s appeared in pop culture through movies, plays and songs throughout the 20th century. I myself was only nineteen when I fell wildly in love with it. The music so aptly described all those larger-than-life feelings and emotions exploding within me. I ate it up, right alongside Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Dvorák’s New World Symphony. In an era of LP and cassette tape music, those were three of the dozen cassette recordings I listened to incessantly. The latter two, I can’t bear to listen to anymore; they are now definitely “pop classical” to me, which nonetheless constantly fills the concert halls. But Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is different. Thirty-five years after I first heard it, I’m fascinated by its complexity and colors, its harmonic richness, its passion coupled with aching nostalgia.

I did a little digging around to find out more about Rachmaninov (and BTW, his name can be spelled with a “v” at the end or an “ff” – both are an acceptable translation from Cyrillic) before I set off to write this blog. Otherwise, how to explain why I liked this concerto so much? Did I even know why? Music with this kind of emotional depth tends to have a story behind it.

Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943), I learned, had been born into a noble family in Russia which owned numerous estates. While both parents enjoyed the piano, they didn’t see that as a potential career for the six-year-old Sergei who was already showing extraordinary aptitude for the instrument. (Ironically, they deemed it too lowbrow.) But the family had other problems. Dad enjoyed the high life, improvidently so, and the family fortune was slowly whittled away to one last estate, Oneg, in northwestern Russia, where Sergei spent his earliest years. Soon that, too, had to be sold to cover debts, and in 1882 the family moved into an apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergei was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but it was a poor fit and he was not an easy, compliant student. Nor a good one, as family troubles continued. In 1883 his sister died of diphtheria. In 1884, his parents separated. The next year, on the advice of a musician cousin, his mother shipped Sergei off to the Moscow Conservatory, to a regimented household where he continued his studies. There, he lived a strict life with Nikolai Zverev, his teacher, and two other students, which, in the end, served him well. It had perks, too; during this time he met and interacted with musicians, artists, and notably, Tchaikovsky, who became a mentor of sorts and helped get him into an advanced counterpoint class. Buoyed by his success in the ensuing years, and his interest in compositions, Sergei told Zverev he wished to pursue composition, and could he please have more private space in the house?

Zverev, who only saw the young Sergei as a pianist—although a prodigiously good one—told him something like, “Don’t be a fool. You’re a pianist, not a composer. Know your place. And get back into that room with the two other boys.” Unfortunately, this spelled the end of their relationship. Sergei moved out and into the home of a nearby relative, and continued on with his studies. (Zverev would not speak to him for the next three years.) He continued to excel, finishing his studies early, composing and performing his First Piano Concerto. For his final examinations, he won the Conservatory’s ultra-prestigious Gold Medal for his composition of a one-act opera, “Aleko.” Even old Zverev became tearfully proud of him, all ill feelings forgotten.

Here’s the thing. Young success, extraordinary success, is a mixed blessing. Rachmaninov was flying high, beloved for not just his composition talents, his virtuoso playing, but now, it turned out, he was a great conductor. How great was that?! There was no place for him to go, but up, up, up! 

So, post-graduation, he proceeded forward, writing small pieces that people loved (they were crazy about his Prelude in C-sharp minor, written when he was nineteen; it drew international acclaim), concertizing in ways people loved (everywhere, audiences begged for an encore of the Prelude in C-sharp minor – it got kind of annoying). He set his sights on bigger things, and devoted considerable time to composing his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor. This, then, he decided, would be his grand entrance into The Really Big League, right up there with Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was ready.

Well, I think you can guess what happened. The premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor was a total disaster. Not just the music was at fault; an incompetent (and possibly drunk) Glazunov took the podium as conductor and did a wretched job leading the under-rehearsed orchestra. Further, Glazunov had made his own cuts in the score, and several changes in the orchestration, none of which made sense musically. Rachmaninov, sitting in the audience, helpless, was in agony. He couldn’t even listen to it; he fled the concert hall.

The press had a field day. César Cui, noted music critic, wrote, “If there were a conservatory in Hell and if one of its talented students were to compose a symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”

The poor reception, and Rachmaninov’s own destroyed faith in his abilities, sent him into a deep depression, a dark, creative-less funk. Perhaps, he mused bitterly, composing wasn’t meant for him, after all. And so, for three years, he wrote nothing, composed nothing. He continued to receive invitations to perform as a pianist—because, remember, he was an extraordinary soloist. His strengths and good reputation as a conductor also earned him work, which helped him get by. But only when, with encouragement from family, he sought out the services of psychologist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who used hypnotherapy in his practice, did he climb out of that dark place. And it was in this reborn creative space that he composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 (which he dedicated to Dahl). Its premiere, on Nov 9, 1901, was a hit.

And how.

So. To those who claim Rachmaninov is overly sentimental, too dramatic, even lowbrow? Oh, dear reader, I will have to differ. This composition came from a place of incredible substance. No wonder I hear passion, despair, hope rising, triumphant vindication in the music. No wonder I’ve never tired of hearing this wonderful piece of music, in thirty-five years.

Give it a listen. Made even better by the performance of my favorite pianist, Yuja Wang. She and her performances are mesmerizing in so many ways. (Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra, July 2011)

And if you’re STILL thinking Rachmaninov’s music all sounds too familiar, a one-trick-pony kind of composer, listen to “The Isle of the Dead.” Amazing. https://youtu.be/dbbtmskCRUY

And his “Symphonic Dances.” Op. 45. Gasp! Where has this been all my life? How did this gem escape me? https://youtu.be/otJmf3pyb1E

And you’re still not tired of clicking on links and hearing about Rachmaninov’s music, you can read my blog, “Madness, SHINE and the Rach 3” HERE.