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Celebrating Rachmaninoff: The Philadelphia Orchestra Presents a Rachmaninoff Festival this April

January 31, 2017

Long before Stéphane Denève began nurturing dreams of a career on the podium, let alone becoming The Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal guest conductor, he was an aspiring pianist, living in northern France and tuning in to Belgian television to watch the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition. When the pianists were in the Competition’s spotlight, the Rachmaninoff Second and Third piano concertos were frequently in the finals, and Denève, as he recalls, became obsessed with them, particularly the Second, which also became crucial to his immediate plan, at 16, to persuade his parents to replace the family upright with a grand piano.


Sergei Rachmaninoff and Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Eugene Ormandy at the Academy of Music in 1938. Photo: Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Archives

“The Rachmaninoff Second was the concerto of my dreams,” he says. “So I started to learn it on my own, not only because I loved it so much, but because I knew that this concerto had the unique power to make my mother believe her son was a ‘genius,’ as mothers do, and that she would finally buy me a grand piano.”

It worked, and he has been grateful to Rachmaninoff ever since. He has also retained his fascination with Rachmaninoff’s music, which he now knows from both a pianist’s and a conductor’s perspective. And as a Rachmaninoff fan of long standing, he knew that the composer and The Philadelphia Orchestra enjoyed a unique historical bond, preserved not only in the composer’s legendary recordings with the Orchestra (originally released on 78 rpm discs, and still available on CD), but also in his comments and writings, in which he praised the Philadelphians’ extraordinary polish and flexibility, and said that when he composed for orchestra, it was the Philadelphia Sound he had in his inner ear.

So when the Orchestra was planning its current season, Denève proposed a Rachmaninoff Festival, in which he would conduct three different programs on consecutive evenings (April 27-29), in an expanded format in which each concert is preceded by a one-act play, commissioned for the occasion, and followed by a chamber music program, with festive off-stage events as well.

“Philadelphia should be recognized as the mecca for Rachmaninoff,” Denève says, “and I wondered, what would be a special way to honor and curate his music? And then came the simple idea of a festival—but a festival that would focus on the great man and his relationship with this unique institution and this special city.

Rachmaninoff leading the Philadelphians in a rehearsal at the Academy of MusicPhoto: Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Archives

“I proposed to perform, in a single week, all the concertos—the four numbered ones and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—as well as the Symphonic Dances, which for me is his most important testament piece, and which he composed for The Philadelphia Orchestra. Those six pieces show a fascinating trajectory of a life in music, from the First Concerto, composed in 1891, when he was only 18 years old, to the Symphonic Dances, which were premiered 50 years later, in 1941, just two years before he died.”

Actually, half the works in the Festival were given their world premieres by The Philadelphia Orchestra. Besides the Symphonic Dances, which Eugene Ormandy (its dedicatee) unveiled on January 3, 1941, the Orchestra introduced the Fourth Piano Concerto, with Rachmaninoff as the soloist and Leopold Stokowski on the podium, on March 18, 1927, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, also with Rachmaninoff and Stokowski, on November 7, 1934.

For the record the Orchestra also gave the world premieres of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 (November 6, 1936), Three Russian Songs, Op. 41 (March 18, 1927), and Act I of Monna Vanna, in Igor Buketoff’s scoring (August 11, 1984), and the United States premieres of the Symphony No. 1 (March 19, 1948), The Bells (February 6, 1920), and Vladimir Michailovich Jurowski’s orchestration of the song “How Fair this Spot” (February 14, 2014).

So passionate was Rachmaninoff about his collaboration with the Orchestra that when the British record magazine Gramophone invited him to write an essay about making records, in its April 1931 issue, he devoted a large section of the piece to his work in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève leads the Rachmaninoff Festival, April 27-29. Photo by Jessica Griffin

“To make records with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra is as thrilling an experience as any artist could desire,” he wrote. “Unquestionably, they are the finest orchestral combination in the world: even the famous New York Philharmonic, which you heard in London under Toscanini last summer, must, I think, take second place.”

He went on to praise the Orchestra’s efficiency, noting that “in England I hear constant complaints that [British] orchestras suffer always from under-rehearsal. The Philadelphia Orchestra, on the other hand, have attained such a standard of excellence that they can produce the finest results with the minimum of preliminary work.”

The plays that precede each night’s main concert, collectively called The Rachmaninoff Trilogy, will explore that relationship more fully, along with the circumstances that led to his creation of some of the music about to be performed later each evening. Their author is Didi Balle, a playwright, director, and novelist who has essentially created a new genre—the “symphonic play,” as she calls it—of works meant to be performed with concerts of orchestral music.

The Rachmaninoff Trilogy is Balle’s third and most expansive project for The Philadelphia Orchestra. The first, in 2011, was Elements of the Earth: A Musical Discovery, a children’s play written for the Orchestra’s educational concerts that explored the basics of music, using the life of Isaac Newton as a framework. That was followed in 2013 by Shostakovich: Notes to Stalin, which examined Stalin’s critical response to Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and was the first half of a program, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s performance of Shostakovich’s response to Stalin, the Fifth Symphony, on the second half.  

A flyer for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1939 Rachmaninoff Festival concerts at Carnegie Hall

The dramatic framework for The Rachmaninoff Trilogy is a Rachmaninoff cycle the Orchestra presented in November and December 1939, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s first tour of the U.S., which, not incidentally, included his first concerts with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Ormandy and Rachmaninoff conducted the cycle concerts, both in Philadelphia and New York, and Rachmaninoff was, of course, the soloist in his concertos. In Balle’s plays, actors will portray Rachmaninoff, Ormandy, and other figures, including Alfred Swann, a music historian and friend of Rachmaninoff’s, who serves as a narrator of sorts.

“The plays take place in 1939, with the cycle as a backdrop,” Balle explains, “but they will flash back to seminal moments in Rachmaninoff’s life and music, through specific compositions. The idea is to give the audience a visceral sense of the composer’s life and times, and personal challenges. They hear the music with a deeper connection, having seen the play.”

The first play looks at Rachmaninoff’s early life in Russia, and the composition of the Second Piano Concerto. The second looks back at 1917, during the Russian revolution, when Rachmaninoff revised the First Concerto in an apartment in Moscow, having been forced to flee from Ivanovka, the estate he had purchased from his father-in-law in 1910, and where he and his wife had summered for 27 years. And the third is the story of Senar, the Bauhaus villa that Rachmaninoff built on the shores of Lake Lucerne, with a musical focus on the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Third Symphony, and the Symphonic Dances. 

Running through the trilogy, Balle says, will be a sense of Rachmaninoff’s feeling “that he had found a home with The Philadelphia Orchestra.” The productions will also involve projections and music, some performed live by a chamber ensemble, some from digital reproductions of the player piano rolls that Rachmaninoff made between 1919 and 1929.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

To make the Festival more immersive, Jeremy Rothman, the Orchestra’s vice president for artistic planning, has seen to it that materials unearthed from the Orchestra’s own archives and other national resources during the research for the Festival will be on public display at the Kimmel Center. These will be curated by Jack McCarthy, who was responsible for the Orchestra’s exhibits during the Stokowski Centennial in 2012-13 and the 100th anniversary of the U.S. premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in March 2016.

“What I would like,” Denève says, “is for the whole city to vibrate thanks to its musical hero, who was once very alive and physically present in Philadelphia, and is now eternally there in spirit, thanks to his masterworks.”

Allan Kozinn writes frequently about music and musicians.

Celebrating Rachmaninoff in Philadelphia

Three concerts conducted by Stéphane Denève:

April 27 with pianists Haochen Zhang and Nikolai Lugansky playing the Fourth and Second Concertos

April 28 with Lugansky playing the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Third Concerto

April 29 with Zheng performing the First Concerto, and Rachmaninoff’s final orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances

Each concert is preceded by a play from The Rachmaninoff Trilogy by Didi Balle, and followed by a chamber music concert. These events are included in the concert ticket price. To purchase tickets please visit philorch.org.

Support for these performances of the Rachmaninoff Festival is provided by Tatiana Copeland. Mrs. Copeland’s mother was the niece of Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Tatiana Copeland was named after the composer’s daughter, Tatiana Sergeyevna Rachmaninoff.