Poster Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and conductor Eugene Ormandy
Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, left, consults with conductor Eugene Ormandy in 1940.
Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Archives, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
Minnesota Orchestra

Rachmaninoff in Minneapolis: Minnesota Orchestra and pianist Hough follow in composer's footsteps

When British pianist Stephen Hough returns to Minneapolis to perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Minnesota Orchestra on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, he will be following in the footsteps of the great Russian composer, who gave the Minnesota premiere of his work on Nov. 29, 1935, with conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. It was only Rachmaninoff’s fourth public performance of the Rhapsody after its November 1934 world premiere in Baltimore with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Rachmaninoff and Ormandy’s performance at Northrop Auditorium received rave reviews from the local press. Writing for the Minneapolis Star, John Sherman described Rachmaninoff as “the same crafty sorcerer, the gaunt wise ogre in evening dress who shambles to the piano to draw from it the blazing fires of eloquence and the slow flame of poetry.” Sherman was impressed by the virtuosity of the new work — its “flashing rhythms” and how, even in the most dazzling variations, Rachmaninoff established “a mood of elaborate pathos, of regal melancholy.”

It is likely that this particular performance in Minneapolis played a role in securing Rachmaninnoff’s confidence in Ormandy as a trusted collaborator and conductor of his work. Ormandy, who had just celebrated his 36th birthday and was only in his fourth year as conductor in Minneapolis, spoke in considerable detail about the concert in an interview decades later. In it, he recounted how he had requested an appointment with Rachmaninoff (probably in New York) to discuss interpretation of the Rhapsody and also how, on returning to Minneapolis, he imparted the details of this meeting to his orchestra.

“I rehearsed that work so hard,” he said.

The interview with Ormandy is especially notable for its description of an uneasy moment during the 1935 performance that had gone unmentioned, and perhaps unnoticed, by the Minneapolis critics. In one of the Rhapsody’s late variations, where the pianist plays without accompaniment, Rachmaninoff had a memory slip.

Program from 1935 Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra concert
Sergei Rachmaninoff gave the Minneapolis premiere of his 'Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini' as part of an all-Russian program by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 29, 1935.
Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries

“He got lost almost immediately, and he began to play all over the place in different keys,” Ormandy said. “… I looked, gave him a ‘scared to death’ look, and he looked at me while playing; he says, ‘Play!’”

Ormandy and the orchestra did just that, managing to get the performance back on track. After finishing the piece, Ormandy remained uneasy.

“I didn’t know what he was going to do. He got up … and walks over to me, shook hands with me. He says, ‘I am sorry.’”

As the two men responded to tumultuous applause, the towering Rachmaninoff insisted that Ormandy should stick by him.

“Every time he took a bow, he pulled me along, six and a half feet, with five and half feet, like a little boy, and he was just so grateful to me.”

After Ormandy left Minneapolis in 1937, the two men continued to collaborate, both on the concert stage and, from 1939 to 1941, through treasured RCA recordings of the composer’s first, third and fourth piano concertos with Ormandy’s new band — the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Hough’s performances of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 will come at the end of the sesquicentennial of the composer’s birth. Rachmaninoff was born on April 2, 1873, in Oneg, Russia. He died on March 28, 1943, just months after his final appearance in Minneapolis on Nov. 20, 1942. According to an invaluable dissertation on Rachmaninoff’s American years by Robin Gehl — a faculty member at Concordia University in St. Paul who also works in classical music programming at YourClassical MPR— this was the composer’s 16th performance in the Twin Cities.

Brad Snelling is a librarian at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. He also writes historical notes for Matinee Musicale, the city's classical music series, which has been presenting concerts since 1900.

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