Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bloggo GSO-oh! Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff

The Greenville Symphony (GSO) concert that Dottore Gianni attended on 26 January  was one of their finest since his arrival here, more than one and one-half years ago.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov

The primary reason for its excellence can be recounted in two words: Vadym Kholodenko. This 2013 winner of the Van Cliburn International Competition dazzled us that afternoon in his moving and dramatic rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. More importantly, he seemed to have raised the level of the GSO’s musical skills as he did so. Those of you who have been following this blog in the last year will be aware that the good doctor was wowed by the GSO in the first several concerts he attended, but that this second season of his subscription found him more critical, as the first thrill abated. The thrill? That Greenville, SC should have such a strong orchestra. The more critical Dottore Gianni? That fine as it is, it has its fair share of flaws. But Kholodenko seems to have inspired the orchestra to reach beyond its talents. I have seldom heard them make music as such a tight unified body. With Kholodenko the GSO made the most beautiful music one could hope for from them.

Obviously they are not the New York Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra, and though with each concert he attends the good doctor, perhaps unfairly, demands a higher and higher level of work from them and is often slightly disappointed, this time they exceeded his expectations.

Obviously the GSO is not the New York Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra, and though with each concert he attends the good doctor, perhaps unfairly, demands a higher and higher level of work from them and is often slightly disappointed, this time they exceeded his expectations.

A word or three on Kholodenko. Not yet 30 years old (born in the Ukraine – Kiev to be exact – in 1986), he studied piano in Kiev, and excelled. At the age of thirteen toured to the U.S., China, Hungary and Croatia. In 2005 he continued his 
Pianist Vadym Kholodenko
studies at the Moscow State Conservatoire and continued to win respect and competitions the most recent of which, preceding the Van Cliburn award, was at the 2011 Schubert Piano Competition in Dortmund, Germany. Given Ukraine’s nightmarish political situation Dottore Gianni is happy to know that he, his wife and their young daughter reside in Moscow, and he now teaches at its Conservatoire, where he was once a student. As a result of the Van Cliburn Prize he is touring the U.S. playing 50 different concerts during the 2013-14 season, and is also engaged internationally, one of his most prestigious events a month-long residency at the fabled Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg (Russia, not Florida heh heh), where he was named Artist of the Month by its distinguished music director, Valery Gergiev, who is also probably the busiest, most sought after conductor in the world.

So Greenville is lucky to have young Kholodenko! Part of Greenville’s “luck” is the burgeoning prestige of Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel. In fact at the concert it was announced that Yo-Yo Ma would be returning in October 2014 (for the third time!) to play a GSO concert, because he admires Tchivzhel and is impressed with the symphony. Dottore Gianni was delighted to hear this, and very pleased that subscribers to the GSO will have first chance at the tickets for the event, which will sell out rapidly. If ever the good doctor had ruminated on relinquishing his subscription, he now states, for the record, “Perish the thought!”

This piano concerto is a difficult one for any pianist. Indeed, Nikolai Rubinstein, the brilliant pianist to whom Tchaikovsky
The brothers Rubinstein - Anton (l) who
taught Tchaikovsky, Nicolai (r) who
lambasted his first concerto
 offered his Piano Concerto No. 1, greeted Tchaikovsky’s playing of the first movement in an ominous silence, followed by an outburst described by Tchaikovsky himself thus:

“It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten. "Here, for instance, this—now what's all that?" (he caricatured my music on the piano) "And this? How can anyone ..." etc., etc. The chief thing I can't reproduce is the tone in which all this was uttered. In a word, a disinterested person in the room might have thought I was a maniac, a talented, senseless hack who had come to submit his rubbish to an eminent musician.” 

Ah, what would we do, where would we be without crrrriiitttics!?!

For more of this and information from the paragraph below, see 

Ah, what would we do, where would we be, without critics?

For more of this and information from the paragraph below, see

Needless to say, Rubinstein did not play the premiere performance of the concerto. Instead, another eminent pianist of the era, the German Hans von Bülow, took it on 
Hans von bulow
and performed it first on a tour of the U.S. in 1875, at Boston. It was received so well by the audience that Bülow was compelled to repeat the last movement! The critics were not so kind, one of them writing that the concerto was “hardly become classical.” Some of the criticism was directed at the sloppy playing by members of the orchestra because of insufficient rehearsal. "They had not rehearsed much and the trombones got in wrong in the ‘tutti’ in the middle of the first movement, whereupon Bülow sang out in a perfectly audible voice, The brass may go to hell!” 

Reason number 2,351 that Dottore Gianni loves live performance! Fortunately the GSO brass and all the rest of the orchestra was extremely well rehearsed by Maestro Tchivzhel, resulting in this glowing critique by the good doctor.

Apparently New York critics received it much more positively when Bülow repeated the piece shortly thereafter, its Russian premiere. At its first performance in Moscow, who should be conducting the work but Nikolai Rubinstein, who had come around to the merits of the concerto. In fact the solo part remained in Rubinstein’s permanent repertoire. So! All’s well that ends well, yes?

The rest, as some fools say, is history. The first piano concerto has become one of the most endearing works for piano in subsequent performance history, and according to the GSO program notes also “the most popular work for piano and orchestra in the repertoire.” That is saying a lot, in fact Dottore Gianni thinks it may be saying too much. Has there been a definitive comparison between performances of this concerto and other very popular piano concerti? Given the nerdical nature of music critics and historians there may well be such a study. Suffice to say that it’s a brilliant, oft-performed piece of music, and that even more importantly, a favorite of Dottore Gianni!

And that’s all that needs to be said about the Tchaikovsky, don’t you think? Even if you DON’T think (many of you do not, tsk tsk) this is where the good doctor’s comments on it end. Oh! But of course those of you who want more on Tchaikovsky have only to scroll down in his posts to May 2013, specifically to his review of an earlier Tchaikovsky concert by the GSO, to learn much more about Tchaikovsky, the man and his music! What? You say, "Thank you"? Happy to oblige. 

After his excellent work on the concerto, which just for the record is marked as follows:

I.               Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – 
Allegro con spirito
II.             Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro vivace
III.           Allegro – Allegro vivace

Kholodenko, responding to prolonged applause by the audience, played a stunningly beautiful transcription for piano of the "Bohemian Dance" from Carmen, the great opera by Bizet." From the flash and thunder of the Tchaikovsky to the tender subtle harmonies of Bizet, the young pianist thrilled the audience in general and even more so than before the encore, Dottore Gianni in particular. 

So, how does one follow such a fine first part of a concert? Maestro Tchivzhel chose to continue in the Russian repertoire. Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3. Dottore 
Rachmaninoff, by Konstantin Somov
Gianni was looking forward to this performance almost as much as he had the Tchaikovsky, first because he loves the music of Rachmaninoff, second because while he loves what he knows (Symphony No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 2 especially, as well as the sublime strains of the composer’s choral masterpiece known as the Vespers), of the composer’s work, he was not familiar the third symphony until this concert. In fact this is the last symphony the composer wrote, and a great chronological distance separates the three works, as he wrote Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 in 1895, No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 in 1907, and No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 not completed until 1936. Each was written in a different phase of his career, and each represents a distinct change of style..

Dottore Gianni’s regular readers know that he loves uncovering the biographies of his subjects. He is not all that well informed about the life of the composer either, so he’s been researching and is more than willing to share what he has discovered with his readers. Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) is often called the last of the great, late Russian Romantics. He was born on an estate in northwestern Russia into one of those interesting impoverished aristocratic families – no cash but lots of attitude – sounds like someone close to Dottore Gianni!). More than anything or anyone else, it was Sergei’s father that ruined the family. A scholar referred to him as a wastrel, a compulsive gambler, a pathological liar, and a skirt chaser.” 
Saint Petersburg - On the Fontanka, Dr Jack, November 2000

He gambled away nearly all of the family’s property and money, and they were forced to move from the estate to a cramped flat in Saint Petersburg. Fortunately for Sergei (I don’t mean to get personal with his name, but I definitely don’t mean to spell out Rachmaninoff) every time I mention him) his mother wasn’t a bad sort, and gave Sergei piano lessons from the age of four. His paternal grandfather was extremely helpful, particularly in arranging for a fine Saint Petersburg based teacher to continue his studies. It wasn’t long before the teacher realized that she had an unusually fine budding pianist in their midst, and his teacher was able to get Sergei (actually let’s shorten the name even more – to initials disregarding the middle name, or “patronymic,” thus SR) accepted at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at the age of ten. The father left the family, and they were much happier after that, as his maternal grandmother helped to look after SR and his siblings. She was religious and she made sure they were too, so SR regularly heard the liturgical chants which influenced his writing much later in life. He soon outgrew the academy in Saint Petersburg and was ushered into the finest place to learn music in Russia (which in late nineteenth-century Russia meant pretty damned fine), the Moscow Conservatory.

The Bolshoi Theatre in the snow, Dr Jack, November 2000
He grew in excellence as a pianist and at the same time as a composer. While finishing up at the conservatory he was already writing his first piano concerto, and of course playing it as well, and for one of his final projects he wrote an Aleko, an opera about whose success he was pessimistic about, but which proved so popular that the Bolshoi Theatre produced it, and placed the great Russian singer Fyodor Chaliapin in the central role. SR was not quite twenty years old at this time. He continued to compose and perform, often his own pieces, after graduation, most famously for that stage of his career one of his most important works, the Prelude in C-sharp minor. During this period of his life SR also added conducting to his skills, and if he himself had conducted the 
Rachmaninoff and his wife
premiere of his first symphony it might have received a better response, for the composer Alexander Glazunov, who did conduct it, was over-worked and probably drunk during its performance. The failure of the symphony threw SR into a three-year funk. During this time he conducted rather than compose for a living and also married his first cousin, over strong objections from family and the Russian Orthodox Church. While intermarriage is not always healthy for offspring, it is all too often the stuff of the aristocracy. But the marriage of seems to have been a love match, and lasted for life.

It may have been the marriage that aided himto rid himself of his depression, and the therapy he undertook with a psychologist was of definitely use in the process. He began 
Rachmaninoff at the piano
composing again and in 1901 he premiered his second piano concerto, playing the solo part himself, and it was rapturously received. It remains one of his best-known works. In 1904 SR became a conductor at Russia’s greatest musical venue, the Bolshoi. In 1909 he toured the U.S. for the first time, which tour was also a grand success. His career, or careers, Dottore Gianni should say, as he was a triple threat – able to compose, perform on the piano, and conduct orchestras, all at a high level of quality.

Then, in 1917 the October revolution and the resultant takeover by the most militant of the revolutionaries, the 
Rachmaninoff with his daughters
Bolsheviks, threw Rachmaninoff’s life into turmoil. As a member of the upper middle class, he was immediately viewed with suspicion and his estate was confiscated. It was also very likely that his musical skills would be labeled reactionary and that he would lose his livelihood. In December of 1917 he his wife and their two daughters left the former Saint Petersburg, now Petrograd, on a sled, and crossed the frozen channel into Finland. He was right to do so, as the rise of the Soviet Union and Stalin would more than likely have taken his life as well as his livelihood.

SR and his family spent a year in the Scandinavian countries, then in late 1918 he left for the United States, of which he became a permanent resident, and in which his reputation continued to grow. He was so sought after as a pianist that he had little time for conducting or composing, until his success
Rachmaninoff relaxing at the Villa Senar
 as a performer ensured that he would be a monetary success as well. Musical seasons in the U.S. did not normally include the summer months, so SR built himself a summer home, the Villa Senar, on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland and between 1932 and 1939 spent summers there. He began composing again, after a long break, and it was in Switzerland where his third symphony was written. It is said to be one of his most “Russian” works, and may well be, as he looked back longingly on his home. He never returned to his native land.

The Villa Senar, Rachmaninoff's retreat on Lake Lucerne
Instead he made his permanent home on both the east coast (New York City) and west coast (Beverly Hills). But he maintained Russian ties. Chaliapin was also in the U.S. and the two remained friends. A strong friendship also developed betweet SR and the legendary Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz. The two performed together, and Horowitz even revised SR’s second piano sonata, which the composer welcomed. When he heard Horowitz play his third piano concerto at the Hollywood Bowl in 1942, he said. “This is the way I always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on Earth.”

SR did not have much time left on earth, falling ill at the end of 1942. He was diagnosed with melanoma from which he died early in 1943. While he had hoped to be buried at his Swiss villa, that was impossible. At his funeral a choir sang his beautiful Vespers, also known as the All Night Vigil, and if you like you can find his grave at the Kenisco Cemetery in Valhalla, NY.

Rachmaninoff's grave in Valhalla, NY
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, op. 44 is made up, unusually, of only three movements. It is marked:

I.               Lento – Allegro moderato – Allegro
II.             Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro vivace
III.           Allegro – Allegro vivace

At the concert, the GSO seemed to hold on to the spirit that it had gained in playing alongside Kholodenko, but as much as Dottore Gianni wanted to like the piece itself, he doesn’t think that the symphony is in the same league with his second symphony, for example, and definitely not in league with the second piano concerto.

At its premiere, in 1936, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by another legend, Leopold Stokowski, the critics and audience seemed in agreement with the good doctor, the former giving it mixed reviews, the latter receiving it negatively. Perhaps those present at the performance were, as Dottore Gianni did recently, comparing it to earlier, greater works. In any case it is not played as frequently as other works of this great composer. He himself was proud of the work and disappointed by the less than favorable responses to it, and had this to say about it: “Personally, I am firmly convinced that this is a good work. But sometimes composers are mistaken too! Be that as it may, I am holding to my opinion so far.”

Bravo Rachmaninoff! While he may not agree, Dottore Gianni admires you for that!


A Silly Coda: as Dottore Gianni was looking for other classical music to buy this morning, he came across this 
album: Rachmaninoff for Romance, and he thought, “How ridiculous!” Then he saw Rachmaninoff for a Rainy Day...Of course there is a series of these attempts to be “classical music for people who hate classical music” but the good doctor did not know how many until he dug around a bit on Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the ones he could find – some more ridiculous than others – Bach for Booklovers???? Mozart easily leads the pack, followed by Bach:

Adagios for After Hours
Bach at Bedtime
Bach for Barbecue (oh, please!)
Bach for Booklovers ??? also Brahms and Beethoven
Bach for Breakfast
Baroque at Bathtime (!!!)
Baroque for Beauty Sleep
Baroque for Brides-to-be
Beethoven for your Beloved
Chopin and Champagne
Debussy at Dawn
Debussy for Daydreaming
Liszt for Lovers
Lullabies for Lovers
Mozart at Midnight
Mozart for Massage
Mozart for Meditation
Mozart for Mothers-to-be
Mozart for Morning Coffee
Mozart for the Morning Commute (!!!???)
Mozart for Morning Meditation
   (one I'd like to see - Mozart for Medication heh heh)
Mozart for the Millennium (AGH!) 
Mozart for your Brain (come on, you can do better!)
Mozart for your Mind (that’s more like it!)
Mozart in the Morning
Mozart on the Menu
Puccini and Pasta (what???)
Tchaikovsky at Tea Time

and last but certainly not least:

Vivaldi for Valentines (oh, God!)

Of course there are other attempts to lure you into classical music, which isn’t bad, but most of them offer only parts of pieces, which in Dottore Gianni’s mind is not a good thing: stuff like Classical Music for Learning, 100 Must-Have Bedtime Classics, Classics for a Rainy Day, The 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music, and Beethoven: Greatest Hits…he could go on, but he won’t.

Full disclosure – the doctor owns Bach at Bedtime himself – so what’s he railing about? Cheers all!