4th Time's the Charm?

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This past weekend should have witnessed a triumphant end to a wonderful season with a spectacular performance of Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto. There are a few sure-fire ways to inspire a standing ovation from an audience, and this piece is one of them. Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus also begrudgingly forces people to stand, especially if you’re a subject of the queen, but in international waters as a tour-de-force, holy-cow-grab-your-hat, jeeze-is-that-even-possible, what-the-heck-did-I-just-witness sort of piece, NOTHING comes even close to “Rach 3” (as we call it in the biz).
From a pianistic point of view, there are a few works considered to be at the top of the mountain in the concerto repertoire. Rach 3 and Brahms 2nd piano concerto certainly deserve a spot in terms of difficulty (and in the case of Brahms, musically as well). That’s not to say that there aren’t other great concertos that are fiendishly difficult. The great concerti of Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Liszt, Prokofiev, and Beethoven quickly come to mind as well. But in my view, there is a particular place in hell for Brahms and Rachmaninov to have created such amazing works that truly require a rarified artist with super-human abilities.
When I was a pianist, I was frustrated and stymied by this piece. Sure it helps if you have hands the size of campfire stoves, with fingers thin enough to slice hard boiled eggs, but for me, the impressive challenge is the mental achievement of playing all those notes without a glitch or catastrophic failure. Because if the pianist stops, the whole thing spectacularly collapses! Playing the incessant acrobatic passages required in the piece one after the other is like being force-fed water through a fire hose, while eating an endless plate of spaghetti. It. Just. Won’t. Stop!
I’ve had bad luck with this piece as it’s made its way to the stage in my career three times only to be canceled for one reason or the other. When I was a student, I had rehearsed it with a fellow student pianist who was responsible for recruiting the orchestra. By the time the concert was to happen, only 2/3 of the needed personnel was secured forcing us to cancel. During my second season with Orchestra Iowa, we had a wonderful pianist scheduled to play (also to close the season), but at the last minute there were work visa difficulties resulting in us engaging a substitute artist and work (for the record Miko Kominami stepped in that weekend and performed an incredible Beethoven 3rd piano concerto). Fast forward to last week, and regrettably, COVID-19 became a severe critic of Rachmaninov forcing us to cancel the concert.
From my experiences preparing the work, however, I at least know enough to appreciate that Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto should scare the hell out of any conductor. There are so many notes per square inch flying by per second that it’s almost impossible to follow along with the naked eye. Because the notes are such a blur, and the orchestration sometimes nebulous without a strong pulse to hang on to, one only has confirmation of being together every 20 measures or so when there is some sort of punctuating, culminating moment, or cadence. So as a conductor it often feels like: cadence, hail-mary-are-we-still-together-for-another-20-bars?, cadence, rinse, wash, repeat. Do you know what that does to my nerves? Let me tell you there are not enough martinis in this world…
Because this concerto is such a high-wire act without a net, you need to line up a bulletproof all-star. Enter Joyce Yang stage right. Last time she performed with us was two years ago, a few months after Emanuel Ax came to town to perform Brahms’ 2nd piano concerto—yeah that’s right, the other piece at the top of the mountain. You would think that following the great Manny Ax (who’s only the best in the world) would be a bit anticlimactic. Not so. Joyce played the Rachmaninov Paganini variations brilliantly and brought the house down (also a hellishly difficult work). My God, working with her was a dream and I knew immediately then that I wanted to do this work with her. There was absolutely no question about the clarity and intent of her music making. Her chops were superhuman and rock solid reliable, and she made the performance… *gasp*…actually easy to put together. With Rach 3 as a specialty of hers (or as I like to refer to it as her party piece) what could possibly go wrong?
I guess we’ll have to shelve this collaboration for a while and hopefully bring her back in the not-too-distant future. As they say “4th time’s the charm,” right? In the meantime, however, I’ll have to be content listening to the concerto at home. If you decide to check out a recording, there are a lot of great ones out there and it’s hard to go wrong, but here are some of the pianists that I would recommend to start off listening to with this piece: Yefim Bronfman, Byron Janis (performed in Cedar Rapids years ago), and Stephen Hough. Happy listening…and I’ll be having that martini now.
Joyce Yang Plays Her Favorite Moments of Rach 3