November 5, 2014

An artist's view: Humpherys on Rachmaninoff

Have you ever wondered how a performer feels about the music they are performing? In this new series on the RPO blog, we will go behind the scenes to feature conductors, musicians, and guest performers. We’ll learn how these talented people connect with the piece they are performing and share fun facts about the composers and the compositions.

Tonight and Saturday, Douglas Humpherys will perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1. We asked RPO Marketing Intern Matthew Langford to interview Humpherys about the Russian composer and his famous first concerto. Humpherys is professor and chair of the piano department at the Eastman School of Music and the founder/director of the biannual Eastman Young Artists International Piano Competition, among many other accolades. He has also traveled to Russia multiple times, both as a soloist and also as an adjudicator for the Rachmaninoff International Young Artists’ Piano Competition in Novgorod, Russia.

"All great music is generated by the culture from which it comes," said Humpherys. "When I visited Russia for the first time, I felt as though I was hearing Rachmaninoff in a new way – as if it was somehow different just by virtue of standing on “Russian soil”. During the last few days in Rochester with the cooler, fall weather, I keep thinking about Rachmaninoff’s birthplace, close to Novgorod (a sister-city to Rochester by the way). What a great combination of cold Russian weather and the warm, passionate character of this music that reflects such a profound musical tradition.”

Q and A with Douglas Humpherys
By Matthew Langford
Douglas Humpherys

Tell us about your past experience with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1.
I learned it when I was young and first played it with orchestra when I was 21. I have played it several times since then, but it has been nice to bring it back after some time away from it. Much like making a fresh acquaintance with an old friend.

What is your favorite thing about Rachmaninoff's music?
What everybody always says about Rachmaninoff; he writes exceptionally beautiful melodies and wonderful harmonies! I think to really appreciate Rachmaninoff, you have to have a visceral reaction to the music. He was such a phenomenal pianist and wrote so well for the instrument that, as a pianist, much of my appreciation of his music is felt in my hands. At a deeper level, Rachmaninoff had tremendous intuition for writing long, linear ideas, was a great orchestrator, and created real structural unity in large-scale forms.
Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff composed his first concerto in 1891 in Russia at age 18. He revised this concerto multiple times, first in 1917 and then once more in 1919. Do you think his immigration from Russia to America in 1917 influenced his revisions?
Even before Rachmaninoff immigrated to America, he had spent considerable time there as a soloist. I don’t really hear much of an American influence in his Concerto No. 1, but there may be some influence in some of his later works, like the Concerto No. 4, or the Corelli Variations. After all, Rachmaninoff did spend some time living in Beverly Hills. On the other hand, Rachmaninoff’s own personal harmonic language was always saturated with 9th chords – I don’t think that is attributable to American jazz.

Why play Concerto No. 1 when Rachmaninoff's second and third concertos are so well known?
I think about the fact that this concerto is Rachmaninoff’s Opus 1 and it makes me want to think about other great first opuses. I think of the first three Beethoven piano trios, the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, and the Berg Piano Sonata. All of these wonderful pieces were the composers’ first opuses. Sometimes first opuses can be very profound. In this case with Rachmaninoff, there is a sense of youthfulness in it, and an enthusiasm combined with a heartfelt quality of being willing to put everything out on the page and into the air for everyone to hear. I think it has some of Rachmaninoff’s most beautiful melodies in it as well as some very complex, dense, lush harmonies.

Listen to Rachmaninoff play the first movement of Concerto No. 1

About the author
Matthew Langford is an educator and trumpeter from Orlando, Florida who enjoys making and sharing music with diverse audiences around the world. He is currently pursuing a master's in music education from the Eastman School of Music.

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