Houston Symphony Magazine From the Orchestra January 2012
On behalf of all my fellow musicians, welcome to Jones Hall and what we hope will be a very memorable concert of the Houston Symphony. This month we are excited to spend three weeks in an intensive focus on the works of Sergei Rachmaninoff, a composer who is a perennial favorite of musicians and audiences alike. From his birth in Imperialist Russia in 1873 to his death in Los Angeles in 1943, Rachmaninoff's life spanned a time of incredible cultural and technological change. Rachmaninoff was in many ways a natural successor to Tchaikovsky, who had encouraged Rachmaninoff's first compositions, but Tchaikovsky's death and negative critical reaction to Rachmaninoff's first symphony sent him into a three year long depression that nearly ended his career. It was only after a long personal struggle that he regained the courage to compose and experienced the great triumph on his second piano concerto (still one of the most popular of all piano concertos today).
While most modern audiences know Rachmaninoff only as a composer, he was also one of the greatest pianists of all time and left a substantial catalog of recordings, including all of his own piano concertos. Performing was a financial necessity brought on by his exile from Russia following the revolution, but his incredibly large hands combined an amazingly facile, quicksilver touch with power and depth. Though the sound quality of the old recordings doesn't live up to modern standards, I highly recommend seeking out Rachmaninoff's recordings- many feel they set a musical standard without equal.
In the rapidly modernizing western world, Rachmaninoff - tall, dour (Stravinsky once described him as “Six feet of Russian Gloom”- in fact he was 6'6”!) perfectly dressed and impeccably mannered- was seen by many in his time as a holdout from a bygone era. Atonal and dissonant trends in art music were ascendant by the middle of the 20th century and this man with a genius for writing instantly lovable melody seemed to many to be a musical dinosaur. A decade after his death, scholarly articles insisted that the taste for his music would soon fade. Instead, Rachmaninoff has become perhaps the most beloved composer of the 20th century, with his music appearing not only in concert halls but often in movie soundtracks and popular songs. What is it about Rachmaninoff that moves audience and musicians alike? For me, his music evokes emotions that no other composer can reach. The combination of brooding intensity and ravishing beauty brings forth feelings I couldn't have imagined, but that instantly connect me to his inner world. I never tire of playing his music- there is always something new to find. Or, as Rachmaninoff himself said, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music” Enjoy the concert!