I’m getting ready to leave for Connecticut this morning, to meet with my sister Beth again, to go over the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto that she’ll be performing with us next week.
Beth performed with the CHSO back in April of 2005, when she did George Gershwin’s popular “Rhapsody in Blue” with us. I still remember that evening, she was wearing a beautiful blue dress, I was playing clarinet in the orchestra on that concert, (so I could get to play the famous clarinet solo at the beginning!), my friend Tom Hojnacki was on the podium, guest conducting.
I can still picture her as we finished the piece, the audience rose to its feet, and she practically leaped into Tom’s arms in a big triumphant hug, like, “Wow, I really did that!!!” Cute!
Beth has been a collaborator with me for decades, all the way back to my senior recital at the Hartt School in 1981 – accompanying and performing with me on recitals all over New England, and together, we’ve performed most of the clarinet/piano repertoire that there is to play. She’s always been the best accompanist that I’ve played with – sensitive to any phrasing that I might want to do, and she totally possesses all of the “chops” needed to play the hardest works out there.
Last spring she played with me on a chamber concert in Whitinsville, at our CHSO Alternatives Chamber Series at the Whitin Mill. Our Dad was in the final weeks of his fight with congestive heart disease, (he passed two weeks later), and it was nice to play music with family at that time. My son Zach played violin on the program with us and it was a special evening.
That night I asked her if she might want to consider doing the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with the orchestra in the 2017-18 season. Her first reaction, was “Oh My God, I love that piece it’s my favorite!” Her second reaction was “Oh My God, let me think it over, I have to see if I can work it up and play it in time!”
After our Dad’s funeral, she came up to me and said, “Yes, let’s do this. I want to do this for Dad.”
So began months of preparation on her part, beginning to work out the intricacies of this amazingly complex and technical piano piece. She lives the life of a typical musician/music teacher – like all of our CHSO musicians, she teaches dozens of private students every week, teaches music in a Parochial school, and is organist and choir master for a Catholic church in Enfield CT where we grew up. Pretty much the equivalent of at least two full time jobs, and then home to play Rachmaninoff for two or three hours every night until 11 PM for the last nine months! Her plan was to have the piece largely “fleshed out” by Labor Day, and then use the next months to perfect it and live with it until it became second nature to her.
Last Thursday, we arranged to meet at her house in Stafford so she could play it through while I read the conductor’s score and practiced “waving the stick” at the orchestra, so I would have a good idea of what she was going to do with it, and make sure I would know how to lead the orchestra behind her.
I arrived promptly at Noontime, and could hear the piano pounding away inside the house from the driveway! I walked in and she said, “oh boy! I’m really a little nervous to play this in front of you!” I said, “relax, I’m just here to follow you on anything you do with it!” (She’s always said that she gets nervous playing with or for me, must be some kind of “big brother/little sister” thing!)
And so she started. The big, deliberate opening piano chords, getting bigger and louder at the opening and then introducing the orchestra’s entrance with one of the most familiar and popular melodies of the Romantic period. I was singing the orchestra melodies along with her, as her fingers were flying at Mach speed up and down the keyboard in an opening display of technical virtuosity until the piece arrives at its first calm moment where the piano goes into an extended solo exposition of the main themes.
As I’m waving a pencil, (pretend baton!), I’m listening in amazement as the Concerto comes to life from her hands, sounding exactly like any recording of Horowitz, Rubenstein, Gary Graffman or any other great piano icon of the past 50 years. It was a moment of uncontrollable emotion, as I thought on how together, a brother and sister would work together to bring this monumental musical masterpiece to life for our audience, and in a sense pay tribute to our parents who supported all of us kids throughout our lives no matter what we chose for a career path. (Three of us are professional musicians, and our other two brothers both studied clarinet also. One is a house builder in Connecticut and plays clarinet in the Governor’s Foot Guard Band, the other is an airline pilot, and spends his time cheering for the Red Sox and Patriots from his Atlanta home!)
We came to the end of the first movement and we were both a mess, with tears streaming out of our eyes! (I know, a little sappy). I said, “Wow, you have got this! You’ve really mastered it! Our audience is going to be blown away by this concert.”
After working through the second and third movements, we ended with such a sense of “relief” and security, and achievement. (More hers than mine! All I have to do is wave a stick, after all.)
It’s going to be a big week next week. Rehearsals with the orchestra begin on Tuesday night, with a visit to Franklin for an “Open Rehearsal at Franklin High School.” Thursday morning the piano will be moved into Milford Town Hall and tuned for the evening rehearsal in our own hall. Dress rehearsal on Friday, and concert on Saturday.
And by the way, that’s just one half of our concert next week. The first half features an equally monumental work, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral tone poem fantasy, “Scheherazade”, which is based on tales from “1001 Arabian Nights.” That work features extensive solo violin passages, which will be performed by our truly amazing CHSO Concertmaster, Angel Valchinov. I’ll write more about that early next week, but for now, I’ll just say that all of us at CHSO and all of our audience and community are SO lucky to have Angel as our Concertmaster for these past ten years. He is truly a “world-class” violinist and a terrific colleague and leader of our gorgeous sounding string section.