I have been working up to this post for awhile. I first learned six or eight months ago that Sergei Rachmaninoff performed a concert not only in my hometown of Claremont, CA, 27 years before my family moved there, but that he performed it in the same auditorium where I took the stage to receive my high school diploma. That was a notable day in my family’s history because my mother was furious at me. I neither cut my hair, nor did I bother to put on a proper pair of shoes – I wore sandals under my gown.
Bridges Auditorium has been a center-point of cultural activity in Claremont ever since it was built in 1931. In fact, for decades, it was one of the best concert halls in all of Southern California. That is why someone like Rachmaninoff would come to this small college town to perform. Arthur Rubenstein, another great pianist from Russia, performed here in 1970. That, folks, puts me flat in the way of Mr. Rubinstein. I didn’t receive my high school diploma until two years after that. In other words, I was walking these streets with Rubinstein, having no knowledge of it. As fate would have it, in those days I was much more interested in the fact that Jim Morrison, later to found the Doors, actually lived in Claremont for a year when he was a boy.
Bridges is quite an amazing place. You approach it from North College Avenue across a huge, beautifully maintained green called Marston Quad. If you stick to the sidewalks, you zig-zag your way to the building or you come at it from one of the sides, although it is also easy enough to cut across the grass, directly to your destination (but not if you’re in a long gown and your finest shoes). According to a text on the Bridges website, architect William Templeton Johnson set out for Europe to get ideas for the future concert hall. “He met the young Leopold Stokowski during his European sojourn, and the musician suggested he use Paris’s Salle Pleyel as his model for the hall’s acoustics.”
The architectural style is wonderfully clean and symmetrical. It is imposing enough, but also understated. There are details, such as the bas relief of trumpeters on the side walls (see below), that fix the design period quite attractively in the 1930s. I had as much fun photographing Bridges as I have any other structure posted on this blog. I could have kept going and going, but I had a plane to catch the next morning in the wee hours, I was fast losing sunlight and I hadn’t yet packed.
When I first found out about the Rachmaninoff Claremont concert, I wrote to Bridges Auditorium and asked if they had any hard information about it. To my utter delight, I soon received scans of the program from that night. I now knew that the concert took place on April 3, 1937, and that it began at a fashionable 8:15 p.m. For anyone who knows Russian culture and history well, this is a rather striking bit of information. 1937, of course, was one of the bloodiest years ever in Russian history. It saw the unleashing of Stalin’s Purges – infamous enough to receive capital letter billing – which, eventually, would bring some 20 million people to death in labor camps and interrogation cells over a period of about 16 years. As all of that was just gearing up, Rachmaninoff sat down one night in the sleepy city of Claremont – there were a lot more orange groves in Claremont then than people – and launched into an evening of exquisite piano music that began with Handel and would conclude with Franz Liszt.
I posted the bio page above; the actual program follows below. It’s not terribly surprising, although I find it satisfying, that of the five great composers whose names are emblazoned on the front of the auditorium, Rachmaninoff included three in his recital – Bach, Beethoven and Chopin.
As you peruse the photos here – the sky is almost as dramatic as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – you can also log onto YouTube and listen to the great musician play his works himself. There apparently is no video footage of him performing, but there are wonderful audio recordings of both his Piano Concerto No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 3. They would appear to have been recorded in the 1930s more or less at that time that he appeared in Claremont. There is also a video clip that claims to gather together most all of the extant video footage of Rachmaninoff walking, talking and sitting.
It is a real pleasure to read the commentaries to these rare recordings. I swore off reading internet commentary years ago. It seems to me the only thing a self-respecting person can do. But, lo and behold! Rachmaninoff inspires people to actually share interesting information, offer up valuable insights and exchange useful bits of considered opinion. One commenter calling him/herself Haotian Yu expressed surprise that Rachmaninoff once was considered a bad composer and is nowadays sometimes reviled as a bad pianist, and added, “Rachmaninoff has ‘arms of steel and a heart of gold’; I need nothing more. ”
Another commenter, Stephen Gallucci, spoke about the speed with which Rachmaninoff performed his Piano Concerto No. 3: “Rachmaninoff was the greatest without a doubt. His ability to play this at this speed with such each [sic – ease?] and naturalness sets him apart from everyone, even Hoffman or Horowitz. It is very sad that many modern pianists don’t understand or appreciate the late 19th-early 20th century approach to pianism and choose the homogenized approach. The heart of Rachmaninoff’s approach as well as other golden age virtuosi was spontaneity. Tempo fluctuation, varied detache, crescendo and diminuendo were free. When this height of greatness has been reached the heart takes over completely and nothing else matters in comparison.”