Rachmaninoff X 2
When I was in school, Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was one of those composers that no serious person was supposed to take seriously. He had the gall to persist in Romantic musical language that Tchaikovsky would have understood, long after Serialism had laid claim to the intellectual high ground of modern music.
Edo de Waart has a particular interest in Rachmaninoff and intends to survey a lot of his music over his next several seasons as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, starting this weekend with the Symphony No. 2 and the Piano Concerto No. 3. If de Waart is taking him up, it’s because Rachmaninoff offers more that mere reactionary sentimentality.
Rachmaninoff’s own playing was anything but syrupy. He was not nearly as exaggerated as Vladimir Horowitz, for example. Rachmaninoff preferred a certain tautness of rhythm. The beat never evaporated; his expression rose from an elastic play of interpretive subtlety against the momentum of the meter. In their Personal Reminiscences, music chroniclers A.J. and Katherine Swan, in a 1944 Musical Quarterly, quote great pianist Nicolas Medtner on Rachmaninoff, his contemporary:
“Not all have understood and appreciated the Rachmaninoff rubato and espressive, and yet they are always in an equilibrium with the fundamental rhythm and temp, in contact with the fundamental sense of the music. His rhythm, like his sound, is always included in his music soul — it is, as it were, the beating of his living pulse.”
Rachmaninoff was disciplined in every way a musician can be disciplined. Abram Chasins, a pianist who later became an executive at KUSC, the Los Angeles classical radio station, wrote in his memoirs of an appointment with Rachmaninoff:
“Rachmaninoff was practicing Chopin’s Etude in Thirds, but at such a snail’s pace that it took a while to recognize it because so much time elapsed between each finger stroke. Fascinated, I clocked this remarkable exhibition; 20 seconds per bar was his pace for almost an hour while I waited riveted to the spot, quite unable to ring the bell.”
That sort of thinking extended to his composition. Rachmaninoff did not, as detractors have claimed, merely repeat Tchaikovsky or repackage 19th-century cliches or obsess over extending piano technique. And he did not merely repeat himself. His output represents a slow, steady progress toward Rachmaninoff’s own, idiosyncratic brand of modernism. (Wait until you hear the startling Symphonic Dances, from 1940, which are surely on de Waart’s agenda.)
Rachmaninoff finished his second symphony in 1907 and his third concerto in 1909. The symphony is big and brawny and ravishing. (The Waukesha Symphony played it very well last year, under Alexander Platt.) The concerto is considered the greatest of his five (if you count the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) for its tight organization and convincing drama.
It is also the most demanding and difficult for the pianist. So Joyce Yang, the MSO’s 23-year-old soloist, isn’t making her Milwaukee debut easy on herself. Yang, a native of Seoul, as a child won several piano competitions in South Korea. She came to New York to study in the pre-college program at The Juilliard School in 1997. In 1999, at age 12, she played Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She was silver medalist at the Cliburn Competition in 2005, and her career took off after her celebrated debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2006. Music director Lorin Maazel was so impressed that he took her on the Philharmonic tour of Asia and a triumphant return to Seoul.
Laurence Tucker, an MSO vice-president and chief program officer, booked Yang on the recommendation of a trusted insider in the business. As it turned out, she was also booked with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, maestro de Waart’s other orchestra.
“Edo worked with her in Hong Kong, and he just flipped,” Tucker said.
Read more about Joyce Yang here.
And here she is playing Schumann’s “Carnaval” in the 2005 Cliburn competition:
Who: Conductor Edo de Waart, pianist Joyce Yang, Milwaukee Symphony
What: Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 3.
When and How Much: Oct. 15-18; Classical Connections concert 7 p.m. Thursday ($15-$45), Classical Subscription Concerts 11:15 a.m. Friday ($24-$77), 8 p.m. Saturday ($25-$93), 2:30 p.m. Sunday ($24-$77)
Where: Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N.Water St.
To Order: Visit the MSO website, call the MSO at 414 291-7605, or call the Marcus Center box office, (414) 273-7206.