Rachmaninov's Rhapsody: A new star in music's firmament

Program biography for Sergei Rachmaninov's November 1935 appearances

Sergei Rachmaninov made his first appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on December 3 and 4, 1909, conducting his Isle of the Dead and performing as soloist in his Second Piano Concerto with second music director Frederick Stock conducting. Over the next 34 years, the composer was a regular visitor to Orchestra Hall — as conductor, concerto soloist and recitalist — and his appearances were consistently sold-out events.

On November 7 and 8, 1935, Rachmaninov presented his new Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini to Chicago audiences. “Last night a new star was added to music’s firmament,” wrote Glenn Dillard Gunn in the Chicago Herald and Examiner. “The composer was present to play the solo part and to stir the staid patrons of the symphony in shouts of excited approval, punctuated by fanfares from the orchestra, while the audience and the players stood in homage to the master.” The response was so great that, at Stock’s invitation, the composer repeated the last section of his new composition, “a thrilling page, a harsh and sardonic utterance, diabolically brilliant and, at moments, strangely wistful.”

“There are other faultless pianists,” added Eugene Stinson in the Chicago Daily News, “though none who plays with Mr. Rachmaninoff’s nobility of tone [and] icy luminosity of color. There is no pianist I can think of who, playing faultlessly and playing without ardor, yet plays at such a pitch of perfection as he.”

Chicago Herald & Examiner, November 8, 1935

In the fall of 1940, during the first month of the fiftieth season, Stock had invited Rachmaninov to lead the Orchestra’s first performance of his choral symphony The Bells, but it was postponed to the following March, due to a pending revision of the score. Instead, the composer appeared as soloist in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and his Rhapsody, on October 22. “So pervasive was the festal mood,” commented Edward Barry in the Chicago Tribune, “that Mr. Stock actually grinned and even Mr. Rachmaninoff almost smiled. An audience that filled Orchestra Hall from top to bottom wore itself out with ovations . . . so smooth and delicate was his passage work [in Beethoven’s concerto, and] Mr. Rachmaninoff’s own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini[‘s] big passages shone with the easy brilliance of sunlight.”

For his final appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on February 11 and 12, 1943, Rachmaninov again presented Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, under the baton of associate conductor Hans Lange. “Sergei Rachmaninoff evoked a series of ovations when he appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall last night,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “His entrance won standing tribute from orchestra and capacity audience, his Beethoven stirred a storm of grateful applause, and his own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini ended the concert in a kind of avalanche of cumulative excitement.”

Woodcut by Curt Gfroerer for the Chicago Daily News, also used in a program book advertisement for Lyon & Healy, exclusive distributor of Steinway pianos in Chicago

Beatrice Rana is soloist in Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on February 9, 10 and 11, 2023. Lahav Shani conducts.

This article also appears here and and in the program book for the February 2023 performances.