This week—specifically Saturday, February 17—marks a rather ironic claim to fame for Knoxville. In Knoxville on that date in 1943, 75 years ago, the Russian composer and pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff, gave the last public performance of his life. On a piano performance tour that began in the fall of 1942, Rachmaninoff had not been told that his declining physical condition was due to cancer—an affliction that finally made it impossible for him to continue, thus giving Knoxville the unfortunate distinction.
Perhaps we should have marked the occasion in a more major way, say, a Rachmaninoff Festival. After all, if we have festivals for biscuits and beer, surely a noted pianist and composer considered to be the “last of the 19th Century” Romantics deserves something on the 75th Anniversary of his last performance.
Of course, I must mention that the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra is marking the occasion in its Masterworks Concerts this week. Guest pianist Tanya Gabrielian will join the orchestra for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Ms. Gabrelian, known for her bold and physical technique, has actually performed in Knoxville before—as one of the three recitalists in the 2014 Evelyn Miller Young Pianist Series. [The 2018 season of that recital series is currently in performance at UT’s Powell Recital Hall; pianist Peng Cao performs next Sunday, February 18]
In addition to Gabrelian’s performance of the Rachmaninoff, Aram Demirjian will lead the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s “Rose Adagio” from the ballet The Sleeping Beauty and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
Thursday and Friday, February 15 and 16, 7:30 PM
Tennessee Theatre, 604 S. Gay Street, Downtown
Tickets and Information
For those interested in the story of Rachmaninoff’s last performance in Knoxville on February 17, 1943—what follows here is an excerpt from an article I wrote in Classical Journal in August, 2010, titled “Rachmaninoff’s Last Performance.”
One of my favorite music writers and bloggers, Alex Ross, reported in his blog, The Rest Is Noise, that he had stopped by the grave site of Sergei Rachmaninoff in the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York on his way to the Bard Music Festival in Annandale-on-Hudson. (Valhalla is just north of White Plains–who knew?) I thought this might be an excellent opportunity to remind readers of Knoxville’s connection to Rachmaninoff—the pianist/composer performed in public for the last time in Knoxville on February 17, 1943.
That final concert was booked by University Concerts Inc. and took place at the University of Tennessee’s Alumni Memorial Gymnasium/Auditorium, a 1930s multi-purpose collegiate building that underwent a complete interior renovation in 2003. Today, the building contains some small performance halls, offices, classrooms, and a modern 977-seat music performance hall, the James R. Cox Auditorium. The Cox is the current performance home of the larger ensembles of the university’s School of Music, including the UT Symphony Orchestra. The current stage position of the Cox roughly approximates where a stage would have been in 1943.
The concert included the Bach English Suite No. 2 in A minor, Schumann’s Les Papillons, and ironically, the Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 with its Funeral March. Rachmaninoff filled out his program with some of his own works, Etudes-Tableaux Op. 39, No. 4 & 6, a Chopin etude, and some Wagner transcriptions. The concert had ticket prices ranging from $1.10 to $2.75.
When Rachmaninoff began his tour in 1942, he was already feeling the effects of the cancer that would eventually take his life. By the middle of January 1943, he was experiencing fatigue and severe pains in his left side, in addition to a bad cough and weight loss. Arriving in Knoxville by train from a recital in Louisville, Kentucky, he was determined to play the performance since he had had to cancel a performance in Knoxville once before. After the Knoxville concert, Rachmaninoff and his wife, Natalia, made it as far as Atlanta before deciding to cancel the remaining nine tour dates and return to their home in Los Angeles. This being wartime, it has been reported that it took them several days to get there. He died there a month later on March 28. 1943. Sadly, the Rachmaninoffs had proudly announced on February 1 that they had become United States citizens.
World’s Fair Park in downtown Knoxville is the site of a statue (pictured above) , “Rachmaninoff: The Last Concert” by sculptor Victor Bokarov.