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Classically speaking / Two titans of the piano

Rockin’ with Rachmaninoff

Paul Huang

Images courtesy of the artists and presenting organizations


Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff was the last in the line of dazzling Romantic pianist/composers descended from Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. His music is so charged with feeling and passion that in a photograph, one might expect a cape, a dashing pose, or the charming smile of one of the twentieth century’s most beloved and popular musical icons. Yet in nearly all his photographs, Rachmaninoff appears stiff, stern, and intensely serious. He reveals only the slightest hint of a smile on pictures at the piano or with his granddaughter. Rachmaninoff was so reserved and austere that Stravinsky called him “a six-and-a-half-foot scowl.”  (The composer’s father, Vasily, an officer of the Russian Imperial Army, on the other hand, was dedicated to the pleasures of high living and the social graces.) Although Rachmaninoff was a Russian patriot to the bone, after 1917, he was forced by political circumstances to live in exile for the rest of his life. He wrote three operas; several major choral works; a dozen orchestral works, including three symphonies; five piano concertos; nearly a hundred works for piano; and more than eighty songs with lyrics from the texts of Russian Romantic poets.


On October 12–13, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra performs Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, written in 1935, the same year the orchestra was founded. Also on the program are Dark Mountains by Robert Paterson and the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto played by esteemed young Taiwanese-American violinist Paul Huang.  He last appeared here in a Buffalo Chamber Music Society Sunday afternoon concert in 2012 and has since been the recipient of both the 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant and a 2017 Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists. Huang plays the Guarneri del Gesù Cremona 1742 ex-Wieniawski violin, on loan through the Stradivari Society.


A new season for the BCMS

Another remarkable young musical artist appears in this season’s first concert of the BCMS Gift to the Community Recital Series on October 14. In a program to be announced, soprano Julia Bullock brings the thrilling artistry of a nascent international operatic career that includes her San Francisco Opera debut in the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West as well her her debuts at Festival d’Aix en Provence, the Dutch National Opera, and the Santa Fe Opera in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. Bullock has also performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Berliner Philharmoniker, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic.


The Belcea Quartet


On the following Tuesday, October 16, the Chamber Music Society’s season formally opens in the Mary Seaton Room with a concert by the Belcea Quartet, who perform Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 33, No. 5; Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2; and Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge. Based in Great Britain, the Belcea Quartet was founded in 1994 by Romanian violinist Corina Belcea, while at London’s Royal College of Music, and also includes Polish violist Krzysztof Chorzelski and French musicians Axel Schacher on violin and Antoine Lederlin on cello. In addition to playing the compositions of the Classical and Romantic periods, the quartet has presented world premieres of contemporary works by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Thomas Larcher, and Krzysztof Penderecki. On Wednesday, October 16, the Belcea Quartet performs at the University at Buffalo’s Lippes Concert Hall, playing the Mozart String Quartet K. 589, the Bartok String Quartet No. 6, and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6.


Paderewski’s Poland

Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff, but unlike the Russian composer, who chose to flee his homeland after the October Revolution in 1917 and never returned, in 1918, Paderewski worked with Jozef Pilsudski to form a new Polish government and became both Premier and Foreign Minister. In 1922, Paderewski briefly retired from politics and returned to his fabulously successful career as composer and concert pianist. Paderewski had made his American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1891 as part of a tour arranged by Steinway to feature its pianos. Leading off with works by Saint-Saens and Chopin, the composer then launched into his Piano Concerto in A Minor, a composition dedicated to his former teacher Theodor Leschetizky. This was the beginning of an American tour which brought Paderewski worldwide fame and wealth.


On October 27 and 28, the BPO presents Paderewski’s Poland featuring conductor Piotr Sulkowski and brilliant young Polish pianist Lukasz Krupinski performing the Piano Concerto in A Minor. The orchestra also performs the “Praetorian March” from Quo Vadis by Feliks Nowowiejski, a Polish composer of some renown during the early twentieth century, as well as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, “Polish.” The nickname derives from the seemingly Polish rhythms in the last movement which, according to musicologists, is a slight misnomer. While Chopin’s polonaise may have represented Polish independence, Tsarist Russians associated it with the Romanov dynasty.


Piotr Sulkowski and Lukasz Krupinski​


Both Rachmaninoff and Paderewski eventually settled in California. Paderewski bought a 200-acre estate, Rancho San Ignacio, near Paso Robles, where he planted Zinfandel vines and had his grapes processed at a nearby winery. He died in 1941 at eighty in New York while on tour. Rachmaninoff was also touring in the US just before he died in 1943 at age sixty-nine in Beverly Hills.


The two musical icons once spent an entire evening together at a restaurant in New York where Rachmaninoff talked to Paderewski in French. Two days later, he learned that Paderewski spoke perfect Russian.       


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