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December 3 and 4, 1909

December 3 and 4, 1909

Sergei Rachmaninov made his first appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on December 3 and 4, 1909, conducting his Isle of the Dead and performing as soloist in his Second Piano Concerto with Frederick Stock conducting.

“Mr. Rachmaninov appeared in three different roles on yesterday’s program as a creative musician (a composer, as a conductor, and as a pianist), in all three capacities he displayed unusual preeminence and gifts of a transcendent order,” wrote the critic in the Chicago Examiner. “At the conductor’s desk, [he] is a striking personality [and] the members of the Orchestra responded readily to his minutest directions.” In the concerto, “Rachmaninov made no less an artistic impression. He is endowed with a comprehensive technique, his scale passages and chord playing are clean and rapid, his tone is rich and musical, and in his concerto he displayed remarkable gifts . . . after a half dozen recalls [he] responded with his celebrated C-sharp minor prelude.”

According to Phillip Huscher, “Although Chicago didn’t get to hear it, by then Rachmaninov had written a third piano concerto, tailor-made for his first North American tour in late 1909. Rachmaninov introduced the work in New York on November 28, with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. He played it there again in January, with Gustav Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic.”

For the first time with Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he performed his Third Piano Concerto on January 23 and 24, 1920. Despite a nasty Chicago storm, Orchestra Hall was packed for the Friday matinee. “The concert of yesterday afternoon was an event,” wrote Karleton Hackett in the Evening Post. “I do not care what the verdict of twenty years from now may be regarding this concerto, for I have just listened to a performance of it that stirred me deeply. . . . It was a work of a man who understands the capacity of the instrument and can write for it in the fresh, vigorous idiom of our day such music as brings out its peculiar power and charm. What is quite as much to the point, he himself can play the instrument with a mastery that makes every phrase a delight. Rachmaninov has supreme virtuosity. There is nothing he cannot do at the keyboard, from the most exquisite delicacy of ornamentation to the downright stroke of elemental power. . . . The music was so vigorous, expressing so spontaneously the emotion of our own time that it seemed as though it were being struck out in the white heat of the creative impulse of the moment.”

Chicago American, January 15, 1932

In January 1932, the composer was again in Chicago for three concerts with Stock and the Orchestra. After a performance of the second concerto on January 12, Herman Devries in the American reported, “It was not Chicago . . . it was not Orchestra Hall . . . it was not Rachmaninov . . . to me it seemed Olympus, and we were all gods. Thus does music glorify when it is itself glorious. It is not the first time that I have waxed passionately enthusiastic over the genius of Rachmaninov. After hearing Horowitz [in recital] on Sunday [January 10], we thought that the season’s thrills were nearly complete.”

Later that week on January 14 and 15, Rachmaninov was soloist in his third concerto. “The most exciting event in the history of Orchestra Hall occurred last night,” wrote Glenn Dillard Gunn in the Herald & Examiner. “With one impulse, the audience rose and shouted its approval. Many eyes were wet and many throats were hoarse before the demonstration ended. For once on their feet, the listeners remained to cheering after the Orchestra had trumpeted and thundered its fanfare and long after the composer-pianist had brought Dr. Stock to the footlights to share his honors. Never have I witnessed such a tribute . . . and never, it is my sincere conviction, has such response been so richly deserved.”

Chicago Sun, February 12, 1943

Chicago Sun, February 12, 1943

Rachmaninov’s final appearances with the Orchestra were on February 11 and 12, 1943, in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and his own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, under the baton of associate conductor Hans Lange. “Sergei Rachmaninov evoked a series of ovations when he appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall last night,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “His entrance won standing tribute from orchestra and capacity audience, his Beethoven stirred a storm of grateful applause, and his own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini ended the concert in a kind of avalanche of cumulative excitement.”

The following week, Rachmaninov traveled to Louisville and Knoxville for solo recitals on February 15 and 17, in what would be his final public performances. He died in Beverly Hills, California on March 28, 1943.

Portions of this article are included in the February 14-17, 2019, program book and also previously appeared here.

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