Monday night, March 22, 2010, I met the Dancing Cellist at Davies Symphony Hall for the third in my current series of concerts. Our seats were in the first row of the 1st Tier on the left side of the stage, so we had a bird's eye view of the orchestra, with a clear view of the hands of the pianist, Denis Matsuev, for the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto. I had brought along my binoculars, so I could get good close-ups on any of the performers.
"The Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (colloquially known as "Rach 3") is famous for its technical and musical demands on the performer. It has the reputation of being one of the most difficult concertos in the standard piano repertoire."
The Rach 3 was the reason I bought tickets to this concert. When I was a student at Oberlin College, one of my best friends, Bill Bacon, was a piano student at the great Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Bill was consumed by one purpose at that time. He wanted to learn to play this difficult piece. I'm sure that was the first time I had heard of Rach 3 and maybe even the first time I had heard about Rachmaninoff. That was back in 1965, long before the movie Shine had introduced the piece to millions all over the world. Bill was excited because the great piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, had recently returned to the stage at Carnegie Hall. And I'm pretty sure that it was the Horowitz performance of Rach 3 on RCA that Bill had in his collection. So that's how I first heard the great concerto.
I always meant to go see the film, Shine, but somehow it never happened. I understand it is a true story about a talented Australian pianist, David Helfgott, who learned Rach 3 for a concerto competition, but suffered a mental breakdown in the process. Sadly, that seemed to be the process Bill was going through at Oberlin as well. He became depressed and dropped out of the school sometime during my sophomore year. But he continued to hang out in our section of the dorm until the end of the school year, as he had a girl friend, Cheryl, who was still a student. In the end, they moved to Chicago together and the last time I saw them it was when I visited them in their apartment there. I remember the apartment had been furnished with an ancient and very black and crusty gas stove, which Bill had proceeded to take apart and refurbish to a grand and nearly new looking condition. I think all that manual labor had been good for Bill and he was justifiably proud of the restored stove. He and Cheryl seemed happy together. And then we parted and went about our separate lives.
I never knew what became of Bill, or whether he ever learned to play the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.
So when Denis Matsuev, a large handsome Russian, came out to perform the piece, I had Bill in the back of my mind. Bill had told me what a difficult piece the concerto was to perform, so I felt a sense of danger as the music began. Would this young man be up to the task? Well he certainly was! I have played the concerto on my stereo many times (dozens, hundreds of times?) over the years and know the sound like an old friend. There below me on the stage, Matsuev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, were performing the music just like I had heard it so many times in my home. Only this was far better, as it was a live performance in a wonderful concert hall. The feeling of danger quickly subsided as Matsuev tore through the piece with no sign of distress or difficulty. He made it look easy.
And so I relaxed and just reveled in the glorious sound, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes while watching his fingers fly across the keyboard. It came to a most amazing conclusion, with a flourish of virtuosity from the pianist and a crescendo from the orchestra in support, all ending with a glorious crash, that sent a chill down my back. Wow! I had not expected such a dramatic conclusion and it felt great to feel a chill down my back again from live music.
And just like that, Matsuev was up and taking his bows from an excited audience. Cheers and cries of "Bravo" rolled across the concert hall as we clapped and clapped. The conductor and orchestra took their bows, then left the stage and returned two or three times and finally Matsuev came back out without the conductor. I had been taking it all in and enjoying the celebration that accompanies the end of a fine musical performance. Life was good.
And so Matsuev sat back down at his Steinway for an encore. He announced what he was going to play, which from the 1st Tier sounded like "Music Box," (but was actually "Musical Snuffbox" Op.32 by Anatol Liadov) and proceeded to perform this new number, a delightful, mostly quiet piece that contrasted nicely with the virtuosity of Rach 3. As soon as his fingers touched the keys and the music began, I was nearly overcome by a sudden intense feeling of grief mixed with joy. If I had been home alone, I would have just burst out in tears, with loud sobbing. But with Matsuev playing quietly down below me, I had to restrain myself, so as not to disturb the attentive audience. I slammed my eyelids shut, as my eyes filled with tears, and I reminded myself to breathe, and keep on breathing, deeply.
As the Music Box played quietly down below me, the sudden surge of feelings began to subside, like a wave pulling back from the shore. I opened my eyes and watched the end of the encore and the applause that followed. An excited peaceful feeling returned.
What was that?! I think my body had been experiencing the loss of my friend, Bill, and when the concerto was concluded so successfully it allowed all the tension about the difficulty of the piece to be released, which led to the feeling of joy, but it was accompanied by the long ago submerged grief over the loss of my Oberlin friends from my life. The suddenness with which it appeared was rather disconcerting, but the experience was healing, as the feelings made their way out.
Once again I had experienced a transcendent moment at a live performance of music in San Francisco!