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Classically Speaking / Rachmaninoff and his psychiatrist

Dr. Richard Kogan


January is a time for renewal. The holiday season has come and gone, and, with it, the almost total concentration of the local classical music scene on Christmas music. Yet, with area colleges and the University at Buffalo just beginning their spring semesters toward the end of the month, classical chamber music performances during January are almost as hard to find as hen’s teeth. Notable exceptions are the area debut of the award-winning Calidore Quartet, as part of the venerable Buffalo Chamber Music Society’s Tuesday night series, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which helps fill the void with three intriguing programs.


Overcoming writer’s block

What is perhaps the most intriguing concert this month takes place in Kleinhans on January 17 at 7 p.m. (note the early start time) when associate conductor Stefan Sanders will lead the BPO in a lecture/concert featuring Dr. Richard Kogan, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kogan is also a graduate of the Julliard School of Music, and a virtuoso concert pianist. This program features his analysis of the successful treatment of one of the most famous cases of writer’s block experienced by a composer, that of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In 2001, Kogan began investigating the psychological problems of some of the composers whose music he had played for years, and discovered that many of the most creative of them, such as Beethoven, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky had what might now be diagnosed as psychiatric illnesses.


A successful concert pianist, Rachmaninoff was a month shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, but already a successful composer, when his Symphony no. 1 had its premiere performance in Saint Petersburg in March 1897. In 1891, when he was eighteen, he had composed his well-received first piano concerto, and it became his first published work. Rachmaninoff composed prolifically for the next few years, including an opera, Aleko, a tone poem, The Rock, two trio élégiaques for piano, violin and cello, as well as music for solo piano and several sets of songs.


Rachmaninoff’s popularity as a composer continued to grow until the premiere of his Symphony no. 1, which was an absolute disaster. Alexander Glazunov, much admired as a composer and teacher, was the conductor, and though Glazunov loved to conduct, he never mastered the craft, and rehearsal time for Rachmaninoff’s work was not adequate, as there were three other new works on the program. Moreover, Natalia Satina, who later married Rachmaninoff, claimed, along with others, that Glazunov may have been drunk on the podium, though Rachmaninoff never mentioned this publicly. The critical response was savage: “If there was a conservatory in Hell, if one of its gifted students were given the assignment of writing a program symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt, if he were to write a symphony just like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, he would have carried out the task brilliantly and given acute delight to the inhabitants of Hell,” thundered César Cui, one of the celebrated Russian composers known as the Mighty Five.


The result for the composer was a severe case of writer’s block that persisted for years. Rachmaninoff had been easily subject to depression since his childhood; his father, whom he described as “a wastrel, a compulsive gambler, and a pathological liar,” was a wealthy landowner who gambled his many estates away, resulting in the family moving to Saint Petersburg, where both nine-year-old Sergei, and older sister Sofia contracted diphtheria; Sofia died. The composer’s family and friends suggested one thing after another to lift his depression. The least helpful may have been visits to Leo Tolstoy, where he was subjected to homilies such as “You must work. Do you think that I am pleased with myself?” Then, after performing for Tolstoy, he was told: “Tell me, do you really think anyone needs such music?” Rachmaninoff, who was under contract to write a new piano concerto, did not, of course, improve from these kinds of interventions.


Rachmaninoff’s breakthrough came when he went to see Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who had followed the work in therapeutic hypnosis of Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris, and who had cured the composer’s aunt of a psychosomatic illness. In his memoirs, Rachmaninoff wrote that in every session, after a long conversation, Dr. Dahl would put him in a trance, and repeat a posthypnotic suggestion


“Rachmaninoff had fallen into a horrendous depression,” says Richard Kogan. “He would probably be barely remembered today if Dr. Dahl had not managed to overcome his writer’s block. He composed some of his most beloved and often performed works such as his second and third piano concertos, as well as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, after Dahl had helped him overcome his writer’s block.”


Beginning in January 1900, Rachmaninoff and Dahl met daily, and, by April, his mood improved greatly, allowing him to begin work on his Piano Concerto no. 2, which became one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire. He dedicated the work to Dahl, who had made it all possible. Kogan has presented this program with both the BBC in London, and under the baton of Marin Alsop with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, offering examples of passages in the Piano Concerto no. 2 which demonstrate the impact of the composer’s psychological state on the work, and then playing the entire piece, as he will in this unique program.


Boléro at the BPO

The BPO begins 2018 with a pair of concerts conducted by music director Joanne Falletta, including the first coffee-concert of the season on Friday, January 12, at 10:30 a.m.; the program is repeated Saturday, January 13, at 8 p.m. BPO principal cellist Roman Mekinulov is featured in an all-French program ideally suited to bring some Mediterranean sizzle to the middle of January. Mekinulov is the soloist in the Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor, op. 33, by Camille Saint-Saëns, an audience favorite from its debut in 1873. A native of Leningrad, Mekinulov completed his studies at Julliard, performing extensively internationally before being appointed BPO principal in 2001. The program also includes the exotic Ibéria movement from Debussy’s Images and the haunting Pelléas et Mélisande Suite by Gabriel Fauré. As for Maurice Ravels’ ubiquitous, irresistibly hypnotic Boléro, it is a work that must be experienced live, in the concert hall, to achieve its maximum effect.


Mozart’s birthday at the BPO

The musicians of the BPO have a long-standing tradition of celebrating the birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756). For many years, BPO members would put on performances of chamber music at the Lancaster Opera House. In more recent times, the BPO has offered a pair of all-Mozart concerts on the classic series at Kleinhans. This year, guest conductor Andrew Bisantz will lead the BPO and five talented singers from the Juilliard School of Music’s Young Artists program in music from three operas: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Mozart composed these evergreen sounding operas to librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian Jew who later became a Roman Catholic priest, and who eventually emigrated to America, where he had the kind of varied career that Hollywood would love. Performances are on Saturday, January 27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 28, at 2:30 p.m.


Calidore Quartet

The Buffalo Chamber Music Society will host what appears to be the only local chamber music event of the month when they welcome the young musicians of the Calidore String Quartet to the Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans on Tuesday January 16 at 8 p.m. The Quartet made international headlines as the Grand Prize winner of the inaugural M-Prize International Chamber Music Competition in 2016, the largest prize for chamber music in the world. Using an amalgamation of “California” and “doré” (French for “golden”), the ensemble’s name represents their reverence for the diversity of culture in its home of origin, Los Angeles, California, the “golden state.” Their program includes Haydn’s Quartet in D major, op.64, no.5, Mendelssohn’s Quartet no. 2 in A minor, op.13 and Shostakovich’s Quartet no.9 in E-b major, op.111.            


Jan Jezioro writes regularly on classical music.


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