A guilty pleasure

I generally enjoy playing (and even listening to) Rachmaninoff – but I usually don’t respect myself the next morning for having done so.

This week, though, might be different. We’re doing the Rachmaninoff third concerto (“Rock 3”, in tribal parlance) and the second symphony. I’m finding it makes a huge difference in how interesting Rachmaninoff sounds when the orchestra does what’s actually on the page in terms of dynamics and tempi.

Edo’s guiding principle seems to be what I heard him say in Hong Kong a few times: “a little more urtext, please.” Obviously there’s more to good Rachmaninoff than that; it goes quickly back and forth between great lushness and passages where any lack of precision is deadly, and we spent a lot of time on precision in rehearsal (and some on lushness as well).

But a determined absence of sentimentality (which apparently Rachmaninoff exhibited in his own performances) and attention to detail makes a huge difference in how well the discourse of the piece works.

Edo told a story about cuts this morning (we’re not doing any, although we are omitting the first-movement repeat; I wonder if that repeat has ever been done). Apparently he ran into Eugene Ormandy years ago in an airport somewhere. Ormandy asked him what he had coming up; Edo told him he was doing the second symphony with San Francisco, but without cuts. Ormandy told him he had to do the cuts; they were, after all, cuts that Rachmaninoff himself had approved. Edo asked Ormandy if Rachmaninoff had actually ever said anything to him about the cuts, to which Ormandy rather sheepishly replied that “he said he didn’t like really them.”

There is a famous story about the first read-through of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, which was premiered by Koussevitsky and Boston. Bartok was in the audience for the read-through, and apparently kept interrupting the rehearsal with comments about how it really ought to go. After not too many minutes of this, Koussevitsky called a break and asked Bartok to come back to his dressing room. After the break, Koussevitsky announced to the orchestra that “Maestro Bartok thinks that everything is just fine now.” Bartok was apparently no longer in the hall to contradict the real Maestro about that, or any other, assertion made from the podium.

I wonder if Rachmaninoff’s approval for the cuts in the second symphony was obtained in a similar fashion.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • I have, on occasion, felt the same way about the fact that i adore “La Boheme”. And you know what? I think we’re both being colossally silly, as are the “they” who have decreed that liking Rachmaninoff is only suitable for children and the unsophisticated, and “real” music lovers only enjoy that which is thorny and incomprehensible. Go listen to the “Symphonic Dances” again and try to keep still, or not get swept away by that glorious alto sax solo. The man could write a tune, let’s face it, and those who can’t appreciate his craftsmanship and the way he wears all of our hearts on his sleeve are missing out. Go ahead and respect yourself tomorrow morning.

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