As audience members were finding their seats in the University of Tennessee’s Alumni Memorial auditorium just before 8:15 p.m. on Feb. 17, 1943, most were probably looking forward to an evening of classical music diversion to temporarily banish the worries of the war that was raging in Europe and the Pacific, and the resulting tribulations at home. On this occasion, however, the diversion was to be a bit more exciting and important than usual: a solo performance by one of the biggest concert draws in the United States, a legendary virtuosic pianist, and a living composer who embodied the last fading glimmers of European Romanticism in music—Sergei Rachmaninoff.
What those audience members 70 years ago couldn’t know was that Rachmaninoff was then seriously ill with the cancer that would take his life a month later; that he might have even canceled the Knoxville appearance, had he not already done so once before; that the presence of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 with its Funeral March on the bill would be strangely prophetic; and that this evening’s concert would, sadly, be Rachmaninoff’s last.
Much has changed in Knoxville and on the UT campus, but the Alumni Memorial Building still stands, used daily in a substantially renovated form by the UT School of Music and the College of Arts and Sciences. While buildings are emotionless to the passing of artistry, we cling to the history, hoping to feel a connection, something of the greatness that may have once touched us, if only briefly. For that reason, it seems right to celebrate Rachmaninoff’s last performance, even if that connection was a twist of fate brought about by the saddest of circumstances.
The 31-year old Russian pianist Evgheny Brakhman felt that connection, too, when he found himself in Knoxville a year ago as the February recitalist in the Evelyn Miller Young Pianist Series. Accompanied by his local hosts, Fred and Jane Tolhurst of Maryville, Brakhman visited the statue of Rachmaninoff in World’s Fair Park and declared an interest in performing a commemorative all-Rachmaninoff concert for the 70th anniversary of the last performance. The Tolhursts set about the task of making that happen under the umbrella of the Young Pianist Series.
The idea of the concert caught the fancy of a number of people in the Knoxville music scene. Since the site of the last performance still existed—albeit in the renovated form of the James R. Cox Auditorium—the university’s cooperation was essential. The UT School of Music, under its new director Jeffrey Pappas, signed on, secured the location, and has coordinated publicity. The Tolhursts and the Young Pianist Series have raised the money to offer the concert free of charge.
The commemorative concert will focus on Rachmaninoff’s work as a composer and his professional life in the United States after fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917, culminating in that fateful last concert in 1943 and centered heavily on his reputation and legendary ability as a piano soloist. Only six of his 45 numbered opuses were written after 1917, and of those, all but one were works for orchestra. That last solo piano work, however, was his op. 42, Variations on a Theme of Corelli, from 1931, a work Brakhman will include on his concert.
While Rachmaninoff filled his Knoxville program with works by Bach, Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt, he performed only two of his own works: two of the Études-Tableaux from his Opus. 39. As a connection, Brakhman will open his concert with six of the Études-Tableaux from the opus 33 and 39 sets. In those sets, Rachmaninoff exploited as composer his own capabilities and technique as a pianist, as well as showcasing a range of keyboard textures and colors.
Brakhman will also tackle six of the Preludes from the opus 23 and 32 sets, with the three-movement Sonata No. 2, opus 36 (from 1913, heavily revised in 1931) occupying a nice chunk of the program.
A word of caution for those interested in attending Rachmaninoff Remembered: Plan ahead. While the original Alumni Memorial Gymnasium could seat several thousand, the current Cox Auditorium seats just under 1,000. Needless to say, I suspect many more than that will want an opportunity to connect with a bit of history, and possibly imagine one of the world’s piano greats through the artistry of a brilliant 21st-century performer.