‘The Season Finale’

Featuring Guest Pianist Michael Sheppard

Johannes Brahms

Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor, Op. 18

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Rachmaninov was a child prodigy who entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine and composed his first work for orchestra at the age of fourteen. For ten years there followed a steady creation of chamber pieces, keyboard works (including the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor), tone poems, and even an opera, Aleko. Then, at age twenty-four, disaster struck! In 1897, Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1 was performed in Saint Petersburg. The young composer was quite proud of his new symphony and felt that it would surely bring him world-wide fame. But the conductor that evening, Alexander Glazunov, was by all accounts drunk, and the orchestra was completely under-rehearsed. A review of the performance by composer/critic Cesar Cui said simply that the symphony “would have brought ecstasy to the inhabitants of hell.” Rachmaninov would later say that the performance was “the most agonizing hour of my life.”

He was crushed. For the next three years Rachmaninov composed nothing. Instead, he sank into a deep depression and began to drink heavily. He twice visited the great novelist, Leo Tolstoy, hoping to be motivated by the sage man’s advise. But all Tolstoy said was “You must work…I work every day.” Finally, the young composer’s friends became so worried about Rachmaninov’s mental state that they convinced him to seek therapy from a Paris internist, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who specialized in using probing discussion and hypnosis to alter unwanted behavior. For hours Dahl pounded mantras into Rachmaninov’s subconscious: “You will begin your new concerto…it will be excellent.” Many years later the composer wrote “Although it may seem incredible, this cure helped me. New musical ideas began to stir within me–far more that I needed for my concerto.” In gratitude, Rachmaninov dedicated his new concerto to Dr. Nikolai Dahl.

The Piano Concerto in C minor premiered on October 27, 1901 with Rachmaninov as soloist. It was an immediate sensation and had wonderful restorative effects on its creator’s ambitions as a composer. From its opening (ominous toll-like chords played by the piano) to the beautiful, haunting melody introduced in the final movement, the C-minor Concerto became almost instantly famous world-wide. The long bouts with depression were, at least, minimized. [Rachmaninov’s contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, once referred to him as– “a six and a half foot scowl.” ]

Although he didn’t smile much, in appearance Rachmaninov was lean and tall and with his clean-shaven face and immaculate dress looked to many like a stately Englishman. But, in the end, he was an American. He left Russia before the Revolution of 1917 and never returned. The Soviet Union did everything it could to entice back its wandering composers–Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninov, but only Prokofiev (to his regret) returned. Although he greatly valued his Russian heritage, Rachmaninov never trusted the Soviet Union and became a citizen and ardent supporter of the United States. He resided in this country for 26 years, dividing his time between New York and Los Angeles. He died in 1943 at his home in Beverly Hills.

Johannes Brahms

Symphony No. 2 in D major

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Johannes Brahms was born and raised in a shabby tenement house in Hamburg, Germany. While looking at photographs of this large and run-down building, one has to wonder how a boy living in such poverty could rise to become one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. The answer, as it turns out, is a bit speculative. His father was a double bass player and was apparently some sort of street pick-up musician who eked out a living performing where he could find work. Under his father’s tutelage, little Johannes learned to play the piano very competently at an early age and was sent out to make money to support the family by playing the bars and brothels on the Hamburg waterfront. This must have been a great musical education because by his late teens, Brahms had become a virtuoso on the piano and a composer competent enough to attract the mentorship of one of the giants of the age–Robert Schumann.

Johannes Brahms was born and raised in a shabby tenement house in Hamburg, Germany. While looking at photographs of this large and run-down building, one has to wonder how a boy living in such poverty could rise to become one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. The answer, as it turns out, is a bit speculative. His father was a double bass player and was apparently some sort of street pick-up musician who eked out a living performing where he could find work. Under his father’s tutelage, little Johannes learned to play the piano very competently at an early age and was sent out to make money to support the family by playing the bars and brothels on the Hamburg waterfront. This must have been a great musical education because by his late teens, Brahms had become a virtuoso on the piano and a composer competent enough to attract the mentorship of one of the giants of the age–Robert Schumann.

Johannes Brahms was born and raised in a shabby tenement house in Hamburg, Germany. While looking at photographs of this large and run-down building, one has to wonder how a boy living in such poverty could rise to become one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. The answer, as it turns out, is a bit speculative. His father was a double bass player and was apparently some sort of street pick-up musician who eked out a living performing where he could find work. Under his father’s tutelage, little Johannes learned to play the piano very competently at an early age and was sent out to make money to support the family by playing the bars and brothels on the Hamburg waterfront. This must have been a great musical education because by his late teens, Brahms had become a virtuoso on the piano and a composer competent enough to attract the mentorship of one of the giants of the age–Robert Schumann.

It was composed while Brahms was on a summer vacation at Lake Worthersee, a beautiful Austrian lake where the composer seemed to be relaxed and at his happiest. The scoring is unusually transparent for Brahms, and not the heavy, thick, sluggish scoring of much of his other music. It is in fact described by critics using words such as “spontaneous, engaging, bright, sunny, and happy.” However, unlike Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Brahms’ 2nd symphony does not have a program (a storyline or plot that it follows), nor does it have features like bird call and storms. But it definitely has an “outdoor adventure” feel and lightheartedness to it that is evocative of nature. And its magnificent finale leaves everyone who plays or hears it with a glowing feeling of optimism and triumph!