This coming Saturday March 7, 2015 will be a special event for the classical music community in Los Angeles. It will be the world premiere of Paul Dooley’s “Mavericks”, a piece of music that tells the story of the waves of Half Boon Bay of Northern California, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto performed by the amazing and talented Pianist, Valetnina Lisitsa, and Dmitry Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony.
I haven’t heard the works of Dooley, but I could imagine that the premire will recieve good reception on his part. The real reason why I will be attending is because of Rachmaninoff and Valentina Lisitsa. First of all, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is in my opinion the greatest piece of music ever heard by mere mortals. To keep myself from repeating myself all the time about it, let’s see what Jed Gaylin, the music director of Hopkins Symphony Orchestra has to say about Rach 2:
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 may be the most popular piano concerto ever written, but its opening tells a troubled tale. Dark chords mist over a repeating pedal tone, tolling like a death knell, growing in murkiness, increasing with ever more forceful attacks and volume, finally breaking free into tempestuous arpeggiated undulations as the orchestra plays its troubled, melancholic theme above. That famous opening appears to tell the terrible tale of Rachmaninoff’s own emergence from an alcoholic depression and writer’s block at the beginning of his brilliant career.
When he was just 19, the gifted Rachmaninoff wrote the piece that would launch his international fame, his Prelude in C# Minor. He had barely started his conservatory studies with the famous Tchaikovsky in Moscow. Beloved by audiences, that Prelude would become something of a bane to Rachmaninoff’s career, dogging his every steps as a concert pianist—the public would never let him finish a recital or concert without an encore of that famous Prelude. Rachmaninoff eventually came to refer to this piece as an almost dreaded “It.”
Soon after composing this Prelude, when all the world was adoring this young composer and awaiting more masterpieces from his emerging genius, Rachmaninoff unveiled his Symphony No. 1 in 1897. It was a terrible disaster. The audience hated it. Rachmaninoff remembered this as the most horrific hour of his life as he hid in a stairwell, hands clamped over his ears. Although today, his First Symphony is considered a great work, in 1897 it felt to Rachmaninoff as if all of his great hopes had been dashed.
His world came crashing down around him, as he was consumed by depression, excessive drinking, followed by almost three years of unremedied writer’s block. True, Rachmaninoff would be subject to melancholia and depression all his life, but this was the worst bout of them all. His family intervened and convinced the young artist to see an acquaintance who specialized in this type of perplexing problem – Dr. Nikolai Dahl of Paris – an internist who had found success in treating alcoholism with hypnosis. Beginning in January of 1900, Rachmaninoff and Dr. Dahl embarked on their journey back to sanity and creativity, by talking music, amending sleep patterns and eating habits, and repeating the hypnotic uplifting mantra: “You will begin your concerto . . . it will be excellent.”
By April the young composer was filling up with musical ideas far surpassing what was needed for a concerto, and a new dawn was breaking in his soul. By late 1900, what grew out of Dahl’s cure were the second and third movements of Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2, and by the spring of 1901 Rachmaninoff had written the extraordinary first movement with its historical pathos, completing the work. Beyond grateful, Rachmaninoff dedicated the piece to Dr. Dahl.
The Second Piano Concerto is yet another work by Rachmaninoff that seems to defy criticism, and so it has been ever since its premiere – so perfectly balanced is its form and pace, so exquisite its themes, so dark and restless and yet so filled with invention and hope. After that bell-tolling introduction by the piano in the first movement, and its subsequent melancholic theme, Rachmaninoff then introduces a new theme, this one the obverse of the first, piqued in utter sensuousness. The first movement ends with a certain violent overbite, however, which makes the second movement all the more enchanting.
The second movement Adagio is strikingly simple and breathtaking. The flute sings a plaintive, rustic melody over bare bones piano arpeggios, creating a mood of far away dreams, of love remembered – which leaves us wandering in a lost reverie as the third movement sneaks in quietly, cleverly.
Within a few bars, Rachmaninoff has launched the last movement into a spirited scherzo march-like movement, full of pianistic and orchestral bravura and splashy effects. The Concerto comes to a perfect close –resolute, assured and brimming with good cheer, which is a wonderfully long way from the tolling torment with which the piece began.
He couldn’t of said it any better.