“Philadelphia has the finest orchestra I have ever heard at any time or any place in my whole life. I don’t know that I would be exaggerating if I said that it is the finest orchestra the world has ever heard.”
Sergei Rachmaninoff, the great early 20th-century Russian pianist/composer/conductor, spent the last 25 years of his life exiled from his beloved homeland, but musically he found a home with the Philadelphia Orchestra. As shaped by its two longtime conductors, Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra was Rachmaninoff’s favorite musical ensemble, one that he and many of his contemporaries considered the world’s greatest orchestra. Rachmaninoff noted in his later years that when he composed for orchestra he had the renowned “Philadelphia Sound” in mind, and it was with the Philadelphia Orchestra that he gave the world or U.S. premieres of many of his compositions.
Rachmaninoff was born in northwestern Russia in 1873 and trained at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. A rising star at the turn of the 20th-century, he first toured America in 1909, at which time he made his first appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra on November 26-27, 1909 in the Academy of Music. In these concerts, he was featured in the triple-threat role of pianist-composer-conductor that would be the hallmark of his long and successful career. Back in Russia in the 1910s, Rachmaninoff kept an active schedule of composing and concertizing and especially loved spending time at his family’s country estate, Ivanovka, some 300 miles southeast of Moscow. His world would be shattered forever, however, by the cataclysmic events of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
With his country in upheaval, Rachmaninoff accepted an offer to give a series of recitals in Scandinavia and in late 1917 he left Russia with his wife and two daughters. Little did he know at the time that he would never return and that he would spend the rest of his life yearning for his Russian homeland. Later, he learned that Ivanovka had been burned to the ground. These events and his longtime status as an exile would deeply influence his music, which is characterized by a distinct Russian flavor and an often yearning, melancholy spirit.
After living in Scandinavia for a while, Rachmaninoff and his family came to the U.S. to live in late 1918. For the rest of his life, when not touring, he split his time between his primary residence in the U.S. and a lakeside villa he kept in Switzerland. He appeared again with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1919, a number of times in the 1920s, and then very frequently from the mid-1930s through early 1940s. He also recorded extensively with the Philadelphia Orchestra in this period.
The high point of Rachmaninoff’s relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra was the 1939 Rachmaninoff Cycle, a series of all-Rachmaninoff concerts given by Eugene Ormandy and the Orchestra in Carnegie Hall in New York City in November and December of 1939, with similar concerts in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in the same period. Conceived and directed by Ormandy in consultation with the composer, these concerts featured the 66-year-old Rachmaninoff in various roles as pianist, conductor, and special guest. The Cycle was billed as “one of the outstanding musical events of all time” and was a great success, critically and commercially. Following the Cycle, Rachmaninoff performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra five more times in the early 1940s, until his death in March 1943 just prior to his 70th birthday. He had become a U.S. citizen a month earlier.
On April 27th-29th the Philadelphia Orchestra is presenting a Rachmaninoff Festival, a series of three concerts in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of Principal Guest Conductor Stephane Deneve. The Festival will feature all four of Rachmaninoff piano concertos as well as his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and “Symphonic Dances.” As part of the Festival, the Orchestra has commissioned Playwright Didi Balle to write The Rachmaninoff Trilogy, a series of three short plays based on Rachmaninoff’s relationship with the Orchestra. A play will be performed prior to each of the three Festival concerts. There will also be a display of original archival materials during the Festival.
On April 18th the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) and the Philadelphia Orchestra will present Rachmaninoff’s Philadelphia at HSP. This one-hour program will also focus on Rachmaninoff’s relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra. There will be a brief illustrated presentation on the subject by Archivist and Music Historian Jack McCarthy, followed by a discussion with Festival Conductor Stephane Deneve and Temple University music professor and Rachmaninoff scholar David Cannata. The discussion will be moderated by Jeremy Rothman, Vice President for Artistic Planning for the Philadelphia Orchestra.