“It isn't fair,” Marilyn Monroe mock-protests in The Seven Year Itch to the Tom Ewell character, who has lured her to his fantasy seduction by playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. “Every time I hear it, I go to pieces.”
Philadelphia has long gone to pieces over Rachmaninoff -- viewed through a considerably more serious lens. Not that long ago, Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra in performances here of The Isle of the Dead, The Bells, and other works in interpretations so finely etched they emerged as masterpieces. (Through his keen ear, Jurowski also memorably lifted the Manfred Symphony by Tchaikovsky -- Rachmaninoff's idol -- from second-rate to legitimately great.)
The four piano concertos, Variations on a Theme of Paganini, and Symphonic Dances have also all been performed by the orchestra in the last few years. And yet, the orchestra found reason to repeat them and put context around the composer-pianist with a three-day Rach show at the Kimmel Center that ended Saturday.
Leading the festival last weekend was not Jurowski, but the amiable Stéphane Denève, whose longtime friend Wilmington philanthropist Tatiana Copeland was its benefactress. In a white fur-cuffed cape at Thursday night’s opening concert, Copeland, whose mother was the composer’s niece, supervised a kind of musical séance, standing on stage while the lights lowered and spotlights landed on a gramophone playing a 78 recording of the Vocalise with the composer conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. She sometimes conducted along.
Rachmaninoff's ghost appeared more fully formed earlier. The concert was called for 8, but at 6:30, a small audience gathered in Verizon Hall for a 45-minute play -- one of three in the festival illuminating critical turns in Rachmaninoff's life. Here, in something like a radio play format with a handful of characters reading a script by Didi Balle, Rachmaninoff's analyst helped the composer confront psychological demons before he went on to write his Piano Concerto No. 2.
The concerto still seduces. Played by Nikolai Lugansky, the Russian of extroverted sound and constant visual physicality, the piece’s big finish set off a spontaneous audience roar in Verizon Hall of possibly recording-setting decibel.
After the concert itself --– with the fourth as well as second piano concerto -- a postlude chat put pianist Ruth Slenczynska, 92, on stage to talk about what it was like in 1934 and '35 to study with Rachmaninoff.
The evening was topped off by some chamber music.
No one will ever say the orchestra didn’t give listeners their money’s worth. The evening that started at 6:30 wrapped up at 10:45. Each night of the festival followed a similar format. Of course, you didn’t have to come early or stay late -- or even stop to look at displays in the Kimmel lobby -- to appreciate Rachmaninoff’s association with this orchestra as conductor, pianist, and composer, which was the festival’s main message.
This was hardly a piece of news before the weekend, and a program's real worth is always a musical one. I had hoped Denève, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, could have found a more lustrous and powerful sound than he did.
For Saturday night’s Symphonic Dances, Denève made a sweet musical point, telling audiences to listen for a spot at the end of the first movement where Rachmaninoff makes peace with himself; a theme from his problematic Symphony No. 1 (in the fourth movement) reemerges in the Symphonic Dances, his last orchestral work.
But in performance, what’s great about this moment -- an intensity of sound akin to playing toward the horizon, a color this orchestra traditionally does better than any other -- didn’t quite come through. I couldn't make out what point Denève was trying to make by taking the second movement as slowly as he did.
Mostly, this festival was a piano-centric view of the composer (not a single Rachmaninoff symphony in sight). The four piano concertos and Variations on a Theme of Paganini were split between Lugansky and Haochen Zhang. The Curtis-trained Zhang had the harder assignment with the two more rare concertos, the first and fourth, and he proved a pianist with an ear for introspection and a range of colors. In the fourth concerto, which is less emotionally direct than the other concertos, Zhang ventured some dramatically convincing opinions.
Lugansky had the advantage of familiar material, and he came across in no small part because of his physicality like a hero of bold expressive strokes.
The postlude concerts were studded with some wonderful surprises. The third night’s coda was especially revelatory, containing Rachmaninoff's last work, the Paraphrase on Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby, played by Zhang. Two extant movements from his String Quartet No. 1, composed when he was a teenager, were a chance to hear a gorgeously polished quartet headed by Marc Rovetti, the orchestra’s assistant concertmaster, who brought nuance, direction, and a sense of life to every last note.
Threaded throughout, the presentations kept trumpeting, like so much branding, Rachmaninoff's closeness to the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he once called “the best of the best,” and which premiered a number of his most popular works. The New York Philharmonic, also close to the composer, held a three-week Rachmaninoff festival in 2015. The Philadelphians could have added one more convincing claim to authenticity by holding the three concerts a few doors down in the Academy of Music, where this history actually played out.
In the end, though, the composer’s sound and aesthetic remain as deeply affecting today as ever. The festival didn’t do much to change our opinion of Rachmaninoff as an original of the highest order. That’s a good thing.