This Week: KSO Will Open Season with ‘Russian Passion’

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra presents the Masterworks debut of its new music director and conductor, Aram Demirjian, Thursday and Friday evenings at 7:30 p.m., September 15 and 16, at the Tennessee Theatre. The concert features two works by Russian composers, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, with pianist Orion Weiss, followed by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.
Tickets at 865-291-3310 or online.

In December of 1917, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia, ostensibly for some performing engagements in Scandinavian countries. Of course, as a member of the Russian elite, the Russian Revolution in February of that year had made his existence there difficult and uncomfortable. His own estate had been seized and the recent death of close friends had caused him to consider a future outside of Russia. After a harrowing snowy journey crossing into Finland and later to Sweden, he settled for a few months in Denmark. But in November of 1918, the family left for New York City, never to return to the Russia they  loved. Rachmaninoff and his wife became U.S. citizens in February of 1943. His final public performance came in Knoxville on February 17 of that year. (See “Rachmaninoff’s Last Performance” in Classical Journal.) He died just a bit more than a month later at his new home in Beverly Hills, California.

Almost a decade earlier than Rachmaninoff’s emigration from Russia, happier times prevailed. He had agreed to make his first tour of the United States, attracted by the idea of substantial fees. In preparation for the tour, he finished up his Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, endowing it with a difficulty level that was intended to impress. Although dedicated to the pianist Josef Hofmann, it was never performed by him due to the physical requirements the concerto demands. The concerto was first performed by Rachmaninoff himself on November 28, 1909, by the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch and later with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler.

Due to the concerto’s virtuosic requirements on a pianist, the work often shows up in competitions by individuals wishing to make a bold statement of mastery of technique. However, that sells the work short by a mile. It’s three movements are thematically diverse and passionate, and its flowing melodic lines are the mark of a composer/performer who was intimately connected to an enticing Russian musical point of view.