Hypnosis and Rachmaninoff 2: The Troubled Genesis of a Masterpiece

v4FNRBPPzdFlAD2uBiTuwaUR_IGMLXZQjq-XrJqdpxoT240UWqbbl3_s9Q0BITmMlifzhCAKICOeli0zcSRZjpI=s2048So often we imagine our favorite composers as musical superheroes: great geniuses who have total, unerring confidence in their own abilities to inspire us, confound the critics, and make history. Some composers do have egos to match their talents (Wagner comes to mind), but all too often, this godlike image obscures the struggles, doubts, and fundamental humanity of artists who are now safely enshrined in the canon. Rachmaninoff is certainly one of those artists.

Today it’s hard to find a concert pianist who hasn’t played Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Given its current ubiquity, you may be surprised to learn that the piece (and everything else Rachmaninoff wrote thereafter) almost never came into being. Prior to writing his Second Concerto, Rachmaninoff had written almost nothing for three years. This extreme case of composer’s block (a tragedy for all Rachmaninoff fans – imagine what masterpieces he could have written in three years!) was brought on by the catastrophe that was the premier of his first symphony.

By March of 1897, the not quite 24 year old Rachmaninoff was a rising star of the Russian music scene. He had garnered successes as a pianist, conductor, and increasingly as a composer, and had recently passed a milestone in any composer’s output: the completion of his first symphony. This was a wild, sprawling, youthful work, teeming with ideas and references to the musical theme that would haunt many of Rachmaninoff’s compositions, the Dies Irae. The premiere was to be given in St. Petersburg by Alexander Glazunov, an esteemed composer and conductor in his own right. Unfortunately, like his countryman and fellow composer Mussorgsky, Glazunov had by this point developed a serious alcohol addiction. The rehearsals went badly, and the performance…was a disaster. It is quite possible that Glazunov showed up plastered, and what they played could not have been an accurate representation of this complex and difficult score.

Rachmaninoff depressed.

Rachmaninoff depressed.

As if the concert hadn’t been bad enough, insult was added to injury when Cesar Cui (one of the Kuchka, aka “the Russian Five,” aka “the mighty Handful,” a clique of nationalist Russian composers that also included Rimsky Korsakov and Alexander Borodin), wrote a scathing review of the symphony, railing that it was music that could only be enjoyed by the denizens of hell. Surely Rachmaninoff, aware of his own genius, paid no heed to the criticism of a composer whose music today is rarely heard in the concert hall. In actuality, Cui was at this time a big wig, Rachmaninoff a young upstart, and the review a crushing blow to his career and his confidence as a composer. Rachmaninoff fell silent, and entered a period of depression that lasted three years.

So, how did he get out of it? Rachmaninoff might never have written another note had it not been for the intervention of one man: psychologist Nikolai Dahl. In 1900, Rachmaninoff began a course of auto-suggestive therapy with Dahl, which included hypnosis. Rachmaninoff and Dahl’s sessions must be counted as one of the greatest successes of psychotherapy in history given what emerged from it: Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. When Rachmaninoff completed the concerto, he dedicated it to Dahl in gratitude for his services. Upon its premiere, with Rachmaninoff at the piano, the Concerto instantly became one of Rachmaninoff’s greatest successes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Check back later this week to find out about the woman who may have inspired Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.

Don’t miss Watts Plays Rachmaninoff 2 with the Houston Symphony!

Watts Plays Rachmaninoff 2
September 19, 20 & 21
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
André Watts, piano

Buy tickets now!

Renowned pianist André Watts returns to Houston to perform Rachmaninoff’s deeply romantic Piano Concerto No. 2. Enduringly popular since its 1901 debut, the concerto’s themes have found fame in movies such as Brief EncounterThe Seven Year Itch and the popular song “All by Myself.” Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada also leads the heroic symphonic tone poem Ein Heldenleben by R. Strauss.

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Community Orchestras Jam at Jones Hall!

Robert Franz leading the Texas Medical Center Orchestra.

Robert Franz leading the Texas Medical Center Orchestra.

Last week, two of Houston’s many community orchestras joined forces with Robert Franz and the Houston Symphony for two evenings of side-by-side rehearsals. The Houston Civic Symphony rehearsed with the Houston Symphony on Tuesday, September 2, and the Texas Medical Center Orchestra rehearsed with them on Wednesday, September 3. Each member of each community orchestra was pared with a member of the Houston Symphony for a side-by-side read along intended to give some of Houston’s active amateur musicians access to insights and tips from the professionals.

As both a violinist in the Houston Civic Symphony and the new Digital Marketing Coordinator for the Houston Symphony, the evening had an even more special significance for me. I have been a fan of the Houston Symphony for many years, but I never thought I would get to play with them on the stage of Jones Hall. When we first arrived at the read-along rehearsal, I think we were all very excited, but also a little nervous. After all, we were going to be sitting next to the best musicians in town, people who have dedicated their lives to perfecting their technical and artistic skills, and for us amateurs it was a little intimidating to think that these guys were going to be sitting next to us hearing every mistake we might make.

Members of the Texas Medical Center Orchestra at the rehearsal.

Members of the Texas Medical Center Orchestra at the rehearsal.

Once we got started though, Robert Franz instantly made us feel welcome and helped us get over our initial jitters. Half-way through our rehearsal, we took a break, and I got to chat with my Houston Symphony stand partner. As it turned out, she was very friendly and knew my old violin teacher from when they had both been students at the Rice Shepherd School of Music. As we played through Gershwin’s An American in Paris during the second half of our rehearsal, all we were thinking about was having fun and making some great music. After the rehearsal was over, I went up to take a look at the conductor’s podium and remembered all of the amazing artists I had seen perform right at that spot: John Williams, Yo-Yo Ma, Sarah Chang, Yefim Bronfman, Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming, Christoph Eschenbach, Itzhak Perlman, Hans Graf, and now Andrés Orozco-Estrada (just to name a few) had all given me so many unforgettable performances over the years. With our new music director beginning his tenure this weekend, I felt even more excited about all the concerts yet to come.

Members of the Houston Civic Symphony at the rehearsal.

Members of the Houston Civic Symphony at the rehearsal.

After I graduated from college, I did not at first find many opportunities to play my violin with others. Without the obvious choices of college or high school orchestras, I sadly began to play my violin less often than I had when I was in school. Then, two years ago, I joined the Houston Civic Symphony at the insistence of an old friend of mine who had been my stand partner back when I played violin in high school. When I realized that orchestra didn’t have to end in high school or college, it was a revelation: I could still experience the joy of making music with other adult amateurs, make new friends, and gain a greater appreciation for some of my favorite music. Houston is home to many community orchestras: in addition to the Houston Civic Symphony and the Texas Medical Center Orchestra, there are the Houston Heights Orchestra, Symphony North of Houston, the Houston Sinfonietta, and the Clear Lake Symphony. Chances are there is a community orchestra near you.

With the success of these rehearsals, the Houston Symphony is looking forward to continuing this program in the future. Who knows? Perhaps next time you could be on the stage of Jones Hall, too.

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Q&A with Alison Balsom and Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet Mark Hughes

Trumpet virtuoso and furniture restorer Alison Balsom

Alison Balsom, trumpet virtuoso and furniture restorer

Alison Balsom, British trumpeter extraordinaire and recipient of the 2013 Gramophone Awards “Artist of the Year” title, will be gracing the Jones Hall stage on September 13 for the 2014-2015 Season Opening Night Concert. Recently, the Houston Symphony’s own principal trumpet Mark Hughes got to ask her some questions about her career and musical experiences, one trumpet player to another.

Mark Hughes: You have a beautiful singing approach to your playing. Was this something that came naturally to you or would you say you had to develop that style?

Alison Balsom: I think all instrumentalists refer to the singing voice to understand phrasing and making a line, whether consciously or not. After all we are just communicating. When I don’t understand a musical idea, I sing it for a while and it then makes sense.

MH: Growing up in the UK, did you spend much time playing cornet in a brass band? If so, how did this influence you?

AB: I did. I started the cornet and the trumpet at exactly the same time and therefore had the benefit of playing the violin role in the orchestra, i.e. you play all the time, the best melodies and learn to listen to those around you and meld into that sound. It’s a perfect training for a brass player.

Mark Hughes, Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet

Mark Hughes, Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet

MH: Who have been your most influential teachers and mentors?

AB: My most influential teacher was definitely John Miller, who payed in the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Wallace Collection. I had him teach me from ages 13- 20, and he taught me everything there is to know about sound production and the zen art of making this physically demanding instrument feel almost yogic.

MH: Other than hard work, what would you suggest to young aspiring trumpeters wanting to have a careers as soloists?

AB: Go to concerts and listen listen listen to the best music and musicians you can find. I would name Martha Argerich, Claudio Abbado, Maxim Vengerov, Fabio Biondi, Murray Perahia, Pekka Kuusisto, Andras Schiff, John Elliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, and Maria João Pires, just off the top of my head, whose musicianship and charisma have totally inspired me throughout my solo life.

MH: I’m a huge fan of the recording you did on natural trumpet, in fact, it’s the best natural trumpet playing I’ve ever heard! Your artistry, command and phrasing is unmatched. How long have you been playing a natural instrument and what kind of instrument do you use?

AB: I have been playing since I was in the 3rd year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – so since I was 21. I just fell in love with this instrument as soon as I started learning it, as it makes total sense of the whole Baroque era in terms of phrasing, colour and the difference in keys and certain notes of the scale, which you lose on a modern instrument such as the piccolo. I play various different makes but my favourite is by Egger of Switzerland.

MH: How much time are you away from home each year? Does your son travel with you?

AB: Not so much actually. I am so fortunate that I can pick and choose when I go away now, and although I used to orbit the Globe constantly, now I just do the concerts that are irristable and that fit with my schedule.

MH: I know you do not always perform with orchestras and that sometimes you perform full recitals. With that kind of endurance demand, you must have to practice a fair amount. When traveling, where do you practice? Do you find it difficult to practice in hotels? Do you use mutes of any kind?

AB: I try not to use mutes as of course the majority of that practice is for stamina rather than learning technical things, and so the best sound production technique is paramount. I do just practice in hotel rooms most of the time and miraculously I’ve never had a complaint – which is not a boast, as it can’t be because it sounds good, as I’m usually playing endless arpeggios and scales! Maybe hotels always put me at the end of the corridor?

Balsom 3 photo cr - Maker

Alison Balsom

MH: What do you like to do in your spare time? Hobbies?

AB: I’m obsessed with interior design and furniture restoration. If I’m not practising or doing a concert or recording, you’ll find me in the shed… not ‘wood shedding’ as the great Wynton Marsalis calls practicing, but literally ‘wood shedding!’ – with a piece of sand paper!


Don’t miss Opening Night with the Houston Symphony!

Opening Night with Andrés
September 13 at 7:30 PM
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Alison Balsom, trumpet

Buy tickets now!

Saluting the official start of his Inaugural Season, Andrés leads the Opening Night concert with Alison Balsom, British trumpeter extraordinaire and recipient of the 2013 Gramophone Awards “Artist of the Year” title. The concert opens with Mozart’s delightful Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Balsom performs Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, and the night concludes with Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky’s ten-movement suite, in a brilliant orchestration by Maurice Ravel.

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Q&A with Jason Alexander and the Houston Symphony

Jason Alexander

Multi-talented star Jason Alexander will perform with the Houston Symphony in September.

While many are familiar with Jason Alexander’s unforgettable, nine-season performance as George Costanza on the hit sitcom Seinfeld, musical theater aficionados know him as a Tony Award-winning man of the stage. Recently, I had the chance to ask Jason Alexander some questions about his career on Broadway in advance of his upcoming show with the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall.

Calvin Dotsey: What first attracted you to the performing arts?

Jason Alexander: No part of the performing arts world didn’t attract me. Plus, I thought it would be a good way to meet girls.

CD: How did you first get involved in the performing arts?

JA: At the behest of a girl. But that’s a story I tell in the show.

CD: Are there any actors or other performers who have particularly inspired you?

JA: Inspired is the wrong word. More like enticed. And the list is long and varied, filled with well-known names and some you’ve never heard of, too.  Great performances are enticing. They make you believe you can get up and do it, too. They also make you believe you can’t do it.

CD: Most people know you for creating the character of George Costanza on Seinfeld, but you have also had a distinguished Broadway career, including a Tony Award-winning performance in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. How did you become involved in that show?

JA: I was invited to audition by my friend Emmanuel Azenberg, the lead producer of the show.  I went in and auditioned for Mr. Robbins and he was very insistent that I join the show immediately thereafter.

CD: What was it like working with Jerome Robbins?

Principal POPS Conductor Michael Krajewski will lead the orchestra during Jason Alexander's performance.

Principal POPS Conductor Michael Krajewski will lead the orchestra during Jason Alexander’s performances.

JA: Books have been written on this subject. Jerry was a very complicated and gifted man. There were times when you were working with a genius and times when you are working with a demon. You rarely knew which one would show up from day to day or moment to moment. However, in totality, it was an extraordinary experience and one that I am grateful to have had.

CD: What role did you play in the show?

JA: I played 14 different characters over the course of the evening. I guess it was flashy enough to win me that Tony award.

CD: Having worked in live theater, film, and television, do you have a preference?

JA: They each have their pros and cons. However, nothing beats playing for a live audience for an artist who cares about their work. It is the most challenging and the most rewarding kind of performing any artist can do.

CD: What are your current professional ambitions and dreams? What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

JA: We all want the same thing – to work with good material and with great people. Every time I get to do that, regardless of the medium, I am overjoyed. I also am making a concerted effort to have directing and teaching and writing become more of my professional life.

CD: Are you involved in any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

JA: I have two television projects in the works. I have a film making the festival circuit called Lucky Stiff. And I perform my one man shows across the country and around the world. Come see it if you can.

Don’t miss Jason Alexander with the Houston Symphony!

Jason Alexander: An Evening of Comedy and Song
September 5, 6, 7, 2014
Michael Krajewski, conductor
Jason Alexander, vocalist

Buy tickets now!

Tony Award® winner and multi-talented star of the ground-breaking hit TV show Seinfeld, Jason Alexander joins the orchestra for his first-ever symphonic performance in Texas. Alexander engages you for an evening of music and laughs as he reminisces about his remarkable and versatile career on the stage and screen. Hear songs from Broadway’s Music ManPippin and Merrily We Roll Along.

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A Cellist in Colombia – Brinton Smith works with Youth Orchestra

Brinton Averil Smith, Principle Cellist of the Houston Symphony

Brinton Averil Smith, Principle Cellist of the Houston Symphony

Recently, Houston Symphony principal cellist Brinton Smith and principal trumpet Mark Hughes went to sunny Santa Marta, Colombia to teach and mentor young musicians in the Colombian National Youth Orchestra.  Below are Brinton Smith’s own reflections on their experiences there.  

It is difficult to believe that it has been more than a week since principal trumpet Mark Hughes and I—still groggy from the previous evening’s Fourth of July concert at Miller—boarded planes to take us to Bogota, Colombia en route to our residency with the Colombian National Youth Orchestra (Filarmonica Joven de Colombia). After a short night in Bogota, we boarded another flight bound for Barranquilla, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and I quickly began to regret my poor Spanish language skills when I tried to explain to the Avianca counter attendant that my cello also had a plane ticket! (Any valuable cello needs a separate full fare ticket each time it travels, or else disaster is eventually inevitable.)

Houston Symphony principal trumpet Mark Hughes follows the rehearsal with the other faculty members.

Houston Symphony principal trumpet Mark Hughes follows the rehearsal with the other faculty members.

A driver from the youth orchestra met us at Barranquilla and drove us the 60 miles around the bay to Santa Marta, where the orchestra spends a week in intensive rehearsals before its national tour. Begun in 2010, the Filharmonica project unites the best young players, ranging from high school through age 25, from around Colombia. They are selected each year by recorded audition, and then meet for four intensive residencies and tours throughout the year. The foundation flies in professional orchestral leaders and professors from around the world to work with the players of each instrument during their weeks of rehearsal residency. Our own connection to the group comes from Andrés, who recently agreed to become the director of the Filharmonica. While his busy career precludes him from being at all the residencies, the students clearly relish the time they have with him. You can imagine what it means to be a young player in a country whose classical traditions are just beginning to be established to work with someone who is not only one of the very best in the world, but also a fellow Colombian!

The beautiful Caribbean beach we never have time to enjoy!

The beautiful Caribbean beach we never have time to enjoy!

Colombians say that they are simultaneously a first, second, and third world country, but the beautiful resort in Santa Marta shows little evidence of the latter; the scars of a multi-generational civil war and the simultaneous violence of the drug cartels are clearly beginning to heal. Andres talks of regularly seeing bodies on the side of the road when he was young, but the generation of this youth orchestra is growing up in a different country, with a booming economy (recently discovered oil reserves are likely to soon make Colombia the second largest oil exporter in South America and may be a source of further ties with Houston). While barbed wire and security posts remain around many buildings as reminders of the old days, today the threat of violence is mostly a distant memory, and the students of this youth orchestra know a country of growth, optimism, and opportunity. With towering mountain ranges, lush rainforests, tropical beaches, and everything in between, Colombia is perhaps the most diverse and beautiful country in the Americas, and Colombians are also among the friendliest people you will ever meet. Not every person can match Andrés’ buoyant cheerfulness, but in this country you can at least see where it comes from.


Peacocks beg at the lunch tables!

Unlike El Sistema in Venezuala, which is intended first as a social project and only secondarily concerned with the music, the Filharmonica Joven de Colombia is primarily focused on music. Students come from all walks of life, but are selected solely on ability and desire. Their goal is to improve their own individual playing, as well as that of the orchestra, and they follow a schedule that seems almost impossibly grueling to those of us who are coaching them. There are breaks for meals—in Colombia there is a tradition of small snacks in late morning and early afternoon, in addition to the main meals and it has all been excellent. We are not losing any weight here! But aside from these breaks, the students begin rehearsal at 9:00 AM and continue the schedule of full orchestra rehearsals, family (wind, brass or string) sectionals, individual instrument sectionals, and chamber music rehearsals until 10:00 at night. Last night I scheduled an extra master class for them in the evening and finally let them go at 10:40, but even then they were eager to keep going, and still had more questions! Their hard work pays off. Their ambitious program of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, along with Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, the Abe marimba concerto (both with accomplished Colombian soloists) and a recent Colombian composer’s work has pulled together impressively in this week and the concerts should be excellent.


Petrushka loving iguana!

A few things that I know I will remember from our time here: the beautiful beach (although since we work on the student’s schedule, I still haven’t found any time to do anything more than look at it!); the incredible selection of exotic juices at every meal, many from fruits unknown in the States and some not even known outside of this local area of Colombia; the iguanas living wild in the trees, one of whom walked past our window bobbing his head as the cellos rehearsed excerpts from Petrushka; and, most of all, the friendliness, devotion and excitement of the students. I have never seen a group of students who have worked this hard, always with a good attitude, and who have been so eager to drain every drop they can from this experience. I’m often tired of being in a foreign land, of sitting in endless rehearsals, missing my family and home (and my daughter’s 13th birthday), but every time I work with these kids, I come away excited, energized, and hopeful. I’m grateful to be able to share with them the secrets of a beauty that transcends both our worlds, and to be a part of the deepening relationship between our orchestras and our countries. If they represent the future of Colombia, it will be truly extraordinary, and I’m glad to know them.

See Andrés live! Learn more about our ¡Bienvenido, Andrés! Weekend:
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Music Director
September 12 at Miller Outdoor Theatre – FREE Bienvenido, Andrés Concert
September 13 at Jones Hall – Opening Night with Andrés Concert
September 14 at Jones Hall – Annual FREE Fiesta Sinfonica Concert


The Filharmonica cellists are Houston Symphony and Andrés fans!


Posted in 2014-2015 Season, Classical, Conductors and Musicians, eNews Article | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment