By Jim Berkenstock, Artistic Director, Midsummer’s Music
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was born 150 years ago. We are celebrating this anniversary by playing one of his few chamber music works, Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 9, which contains the inscription, “In Memory of a Great Artist.” The “Great Artist” was his friend and mentor, Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky. This second Trio élégiaque was written shortly after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. We therefore begin our program with the 1st String Quartet of Tchaikovsky leading us to the title, “Remembering Rachmaninoff, Remembering Tchaikovsky.”
Neither Tchaikovsky nor Rachmaninoff composed a great deal of chamber music, especially Rachmaninoff, so his tribute to Tchaikovsky in the form of this memorial elegy is of particular significance. In addition to being a big work, it also is reflective of the strong feelings Rachmaninoff had for his mentor. In fact, Rachmaninoff, who was prone to bouts of depression, was much affected by Tchaikovsky’s death for several years. When Tchaikovsky died, Rachmaninoff not only lost someone who believed in his ability but also someone who was willing to conduct his new works, thus adding an important imprimatur to the younger composer. At the tender and impressionable age of 20, this loss was a real blow to Rachmaninoff.
Rachmaninoff was one of the great pianists of his day with famously enormous hands and a blazing technique. His concertizing was such a big part of his life that it curtailed his overall compositional output, much of which includes the piano. Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, did not have a significant career as a performer except as an occasional conductor. He was trained as a civil servant and spent his early years in administrative work before attending the newly organized Russian Musical Society. His 13-year period of support by Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy benefactor who insisted that they never meet, allowed Tchaikovsky considerable financial freedom to compose with little financial concern. His output concentrates much more on opera, ballet, and symphonic works with numerous masterpieces in each area. Hearing these two giants in the realm of chamber music, especially on the same program, gives us a rare opportunity to explore both of them through that narrow lens of their chamber music.
Jeannie Yu returns to plumb the passionate and yearning pages of the Rachmaninoff, and David Perry leads our quartet in the ravishing Russian riches of the Tchaikovsky. The second movement of this work may sound familiar because it has taken on a life of its own. Its inspiration apparently was the singing of a painter working at his sister’s home where Tchaikovsky was visiting one summer. The folk song Tchaikovsky heard is roughly translated “drinking from a glass of rum.” Tchaikovsky went on to arrange this movement for solo cello and strings. It then became the basis of a popular English song (“On the Isle of May”) from the 1940s.
This Quartet was performed as a tribute to Leo Tolstoy, who was reportedly move to tears. Helen Keller “heard” the work when a friend played the Zoellner Quartet’s performance on a record player placed on a wooden table next to her. Keller felt the vibrations with her hands through the table and was similarly moved to tears. She responded further by writing the following:
When you play to me, I see and hear and feel many things that I cannot easily put into words. I feel the sweep and surge and mighty pulse of life. Oh, you are masters of a wondrous art, subtle and superfine. When you play to me immediately a miracle is wrought, sight is given the blind, and deaf ears hear sweet, strange sounds.
Each note is a picture, a fragrance, the flash of a wing, a lovely girl with pearls in her hair, a group of exquisite children dancing and swinging garlands of flowers—a bright mingling of colors and twinkling feet. There are notes that laugh and kiss and sigh and melt together. And notes that weep and rage and fly apart like shattered crystal.
But mostly the violins sing of lovely things—woods and streams and sun-kissed hills, the faint sound of tiny creatures flitting about in the grass and under the petals of the flowers, the noiseless stirring of shadows in my garden, and the soft breathings of shy things that light on my hand for an instant, or touch my hair with their wings. O, yes! and a thousand, thousand other things that I cannot describe come thronging through my soul when the Zoellner Quartet plays to me.
Please join us to hear what Helen Keller “heard.” Concerts are Thursday, June 29, 7:00 pm, at the Kress Pavilion, Egg Harbor; Friday, June 30, 7:00 pm, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Ephraim; Saturday, July 1, 7:00 pm, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Sister Bay; and Sunday, 5:00 pm, at Hope United Church of Christ, Sturgeon Bay. Please call 920-854-7088 or visit www.midsummersmusic for tickets or more information. “The violins [will] sing of lovely things.”