Though Sergei Rachmaninoff's concertos and symphonies have long been fixtures at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, seeing a photo of the famously severe Russian composer himself next to those Corinthian pillars on the Academy of Music stage still has the power to startle. His hooded eyes look strangely vulnerable while he conducts the sea of musicians below him. It's almost like one of the faces on Mount Rushmore has come alive.
Even more unlikely, local archivist Jack McCarthy kept stumbling on flashes of humor while researching the composer in the Philadelphia Orchestra Archives and Library of Congress for the orchestra's Rachmaninoff Festival this week. When the 6-foot-plus Rachmaninoff' sent a photo of himself standing next to 5-foot conductor Arturo Toscanini, he wrote, "I'm the one on the left."
More of that is what stands to greet audiences at the festival, Thursday through Saturday at the Kimmel Center, which presents all five of the composer's works for piano and orchestra over three days.
The concerts feature pianists Haochen Zhang and Nikolai Lugansky, plus preconcert activities. A near-lifesize image of Rachmaninoff will stand in the lobby, along with McCarthy-collected archival materials. Three plays about the composer by Didi Balle will be seen, one at 6:30 p.m. each evening.
Leave it to a non-Philadelphian to hatch an idea built around a presence that locals may take for granted. Eager to follow up last spring's John Williams festival, orchestra principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève marveled at how Rachmaninoff made Philadelphia an artistic base, with concerts and recordings from his 1909 debut to his final major work, the Symphonic Dances, which the orchestra premiered under Eugene Ormandy in 1941.
"Years ago, I composed for the great [Russian opera star] Chaliapin," Rachmaninoff once said. "Now he is dead, so I compose for a new kind of artist, the Philadelphia Orchestra."
"Philadelphia should be the mecca of Rachmaninoff, a place to hear the real Rachmaninoff, as people go to Bayreuth for Wagner," says Denève.
Of course, Denève knows "the real Rachmaninoff" is a moving target. When the Philadelphia Orchestra brought Symphonic Dances to Royal Albert Hall in 2011, some in the British press proclaimed it to be an "original instrument" performance, even though Charles Dutoit's cooler version of the Philadelphia sound was far different from Ormandy's.
Like so many musicians the public seems to know, Rachmaninoff has a few ubiquitous pieces -- the orchestra has played the Piano Concerto No. 2 upward of 70 times. But much else is open for revisionist thinking.
Born into aristocratic circumstances to a family of Romanian Tatar descent, Rachmaninoff composed prolifically while in Russia and in Dresden and was not just a pianist and composer but a conductor. After fleeing the Russian Revolution, he rebuilt his fortune as a touring pianist, often traveling in his own ornate train car, composing only fitfully and often under cloistered circumstances, sometimes eating only Russian food. Still, his music took on an American accent.
"You see a rupture," says Denève. "The Piano Concerto No.4 and Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini are different Rachmaninoff."
Hearing these works together, says pianist Zhang, may well create a fascinating narrative, from the Tchaikovskian first concerto to the more sleek, modern Piano Concerto No. 4, which Rachmaninoff revised up until his death from cancer in 1943, and not necessarily for the better.
Sometimes, the composer seemed not to know best. He agreed to damaging cuts in the Piano Concerto No. 3 that remained standard for decades after his death. He forbade radio recordings that might have shown what he was like in live concerts.
His rejection rate on studio recordings of his own performances was so high that RCA Victor passed on his offer to rerecord his entire repertoire late in life. The venture would have been arduous and expensive, says Denève. And maybe not an improvement. Of Rachmaninoff's 1940 Piano Concerto No. 3 recording, the conductor says, "I have the feeling he must've been in a bad mood."
As inviting as his music can be, it has long inspired quiet ambivalence. During the modernist 1960s, Rachmaninoff was deeply unfashionable. Conductors who championed Tchaikovsky, such as Leonard Bernstein and Yevgeny Mravinsky, avoided him.
Ormandy rerecorded the Rachmaninoff basics with each technological breakthrough, but he recorded the Symphonic Dances only once -- though the composer had dedicated the piece to him. Philadelphia maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin loves the Symphony No. 3, but not all audiences on the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2015 European tour did.
"Each time I practice the Piano Concerto No. 4, my opinion of it changes," said Zhang, who plays the first and fourth concertos in the festival. "He wanted to create something new ... and was out of his comfort zone."
The Rachmaninoff problem was maybe summed up at his 1909 Philadelphia debut, which featured the composer's greatest hit, the Prelude in C-sharp minor, as well as the Symphony No. 2. "Just as the C-sharp-minor prelude seems full of a message bigger than the small form in which it is conveyed," wrote critic Henry Gordon Thunder in the Public Ledger, "so does the symphony seem to be saying over-well a thought that is too small."
The question is whether that's a problem. "This doesn't mean that the symphony is not a fine work," wrote Thunder, "splendid even at times, well worthwhile."
Philadelphia Orchestra's Rachmaninoff Festival, Thursday through Saturday at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. Thursday's program features Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 2. Friday, it's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Piano Concerto No. 3. Saturday features the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Symphonic Dances. Tickets: $45-$152. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.