Maria Mordasova plaque, Voronezh

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Everything about Maria Mordasova shouts joy. That face, that voice, that attitude, that entire life (or, most of it… read on). Here is a woman whose first job as a girl was as a milkmaid. The first job she took after moving to Voronezh when she was around 20 was at a garment factory. Nothing at that time pointed to the fact that she would soon be one of the most famous and beloved stars in the Soviet Union. Well, except for one thing – that voice. It was a voice that was made to sing Russian folk songs and chastushki – those quick-witted, comical little run-ons of life observations. She made them sparkle and ring out with a perfection that may never have been matched. Give a listen if you’re interested – I dare you not to be smiling within seconds.
Despite what I said just above, folks in her native town of Lower Mazovka, near Tambov, knew she was special. Like her mother Praskovya – the best singer of folk songs in the area – she was a favorite at public gatherings and celebrations and festivals. The legend is that, even when she was still a girl, she would entrance audiences so that they would not let her leave the stage and she would perform for them until morning.
Yeah, maybe a legend. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And there certainly was fire in Mordasova’s voice and her manner of delivery. When she sang it was like she was unleashing a volcano of pent-up Russian energy. Hers was a voice that could fly like an eagle over birch woods, fir forests, and grassy meadows. It was a voice that could embody those very Russian images.
Mordasova was born February 14, 1915, and she died in Voronezh September 25, 1997. After winning the plaudits of a talent show in her hometown in 1938, and, apparently, escaping a bad marriage, she moved to the big city of Voronezh. A few years later she was instrumental in founding a folk music ensemble in the village of Anna. This happened in late 1942, a time that was very dark in the Soviet Union. The war at that time was taking a horrible toll. Surely, the founding of a joy-filled folk group would have pleased the authorities, and one assumes they had plenty of help. With Mordasova’s voice in the lead, they deserved it.
In fact, Mordasova’s first big break as an entertainer came in January 1943, shortly after Voronezh was liberated from the German army. She and her group performed at the celebrations and it brought her national attention.
Mordasova married the accordionist Ivan Rudenko in 1945 – it is his accordion you hear on most of her recordings – and as soon as peace was declared, they and their ensemble set out on a tour of the entire Soviet Union, bringing light, joy and hope to a nation ravaged by death, destruction and hopelessness. I mention all of this in a tone that helps explain why this singer’s fame and popularity spread so quickly and so deeply.

One gets a feeling for Mordasova’s impact on a nation in a paragraph from one of the online biographies in Russian:
New collections of songs and chastushki, recordings on records, recordings on the radio, and articles in the newspapers appeared regularly. Maria Nikolaevna’s song lived in her heart. It was her manner of speech, her gift of communicating with people. Everyone knew Mordasova, from small to big. And she was welcome in any house. Her songs have always been welcome!
When I mentioned to my wife Oksana that I was going to write about Mordasova, she struggled to make the connection at first, but, relying on the instincts of her cultural upbringing, she immediately said, “Oh! That’s something great! That’s something huge! It’s from my childhood. I’m not sure what. But I know it’s huge!
As it turned out, Mordasova spent 30 years singing with the Voronezh Folk Choir, and, later, the Regional Philharmonia. She traveled over all of Russia and much of the world, bringing her self-styled understanding of the Russian spirit to those who were interested.
Aside from her incredible singing style, however, Mordasova was also a brilliant writer and an important collector of folklore. Many of the songs she sang she either wrote or had collected herself. The site mentioned just above informs us that she wrote over 300 of her own songs. The heart and soul of the kind of song she sang was wit, humor and brevity. In “Everyone Has Young Husbands,” she sings, “I have a young old man for a husband…” In “Heartbreaker,” she sings, “My face is very pretty and I stole a handsome man from you, now go ahead, you beauty, just try and steal him back…”
One source informs us that losing the joy of the stage brought the singer serious complications. “Maria Mordasova left the stage in 1982 and began writing her memoirs. Leaving the stage seriously undermined Maria Nikolayevna’s mental health. She began to experience depression and nervous breakdowns. In 1994 she became an honorary citizen of Voronezh. September 25, 1997, 82-year-old Maria Mordasova died of a hemorrhage in the brain.
The plaque we gaze upon today hangs on the wall of a relatively nondescript building located at 8 Lenin Square in Voronezh. (I hate to say this is uncertain information. Net sources do not agree on the address –  my photos show that the next door building is No. 9, and that is where the Mordasova Museum is now located. But the address of her home is alternately given as No. 6 or No. 8 in various sources.) The official order to erect the plaque was issued April 20, 1998.

 

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Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Pantages, Hollywood

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On one hand it’s not that big of a deal, Sergei Rachmaninoff making his debut with the LA Philharmonic at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Rachmaninoff played around Los Angeles with some frequency (we’ve written about some of those concerts here), and he played many concerts throughout the United States. And still, there is something with a bit of magic dust about being able to walk up to the corner of Hollywood and Vine in LA and looking down Hollywood Boulevard to see that same Pantages Theater staring back at you, almost, if not exactly, as it might have appeared to Rachmaninoff that late January night in 1940 when, as a pianist, he performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 under the baton of conductor Leopold Stokowski. It is probably fitting that in program that night was also Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff having been something of friendly thorns in each others’ sides for decades by then.
The Pantages is rather worse for the wear at this point in its life. There’s something crass and commercial about it. You look at old photos of it and it has real gravitas, despite, or thanks to, the quirkiness of its architecture. Now it seems a bit squat and cramped in its quarters among other buildings. The advertising marquees plastered all over it don’t help (Hamilton had just opened here for its L.A. run the night before I took these photos). The place needs some paint and some new plaster as it also needs some good buffing up on its metallic features. And still, here it is, the place where Rachmaninoff first teamed up with the L.A. Philharmonic, and where he performed as the great Stokowski looked down over him from his podium.
As always when writing about Rachmaninoff or Stravinsky in L.A., I am grateful to the musician and music scholar Keenan Reesor, who has pretty much said what there is to say about these two composer-pianists and their lives in the Hollywood area. Once again, I lean on Reesor’s paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943,” which is, thankfully, fully accessible on the internet (just do a search and download the PDF). Reesor quotes the L.A. Times music critic Isabel Morse Jones as writing about the evening at the Pantages, “The splendid moments [of the program] came with the playing of Rachmaninoff. His second concerto has so much of nostalgia, of longing for and realization of beauty that hearing him play it created a wave of emotional warmth and appreciation in the listeners such as we seldom enjoy in a concert. The audience stood to applaud this grand and ageless master.”
Some good soul on YouTube restored and remastered a full recording of Rachmaninoff and Stokowski performing the Piano Concerto No. 2, so you can actually get a feel for what Isabel Morse Jones was so excited about that night. I must say, it is remarkable – both the performance and the recording.

The Piano Concert No. 2 is, of course, central in Rachmaninoff’s work. To slight nothing else that he wrote, this is the work that established him and has sustained the often fanatic adoration that his person and his music continue to evoke today. It’s not terribly surprising that this would be true. If you skipped over the link just above, go back now and click on it. Listen for just the shortest amount of time and you will surely hear what I hear – the man himself in his music. Those notes are Rachmaninoff’s heart and soul, his thoughts, his memories, his dreams. He really did have an amazing ability to make his dreams come to life in sound. When Rachmaninoff writes them and then plays them, these are not merely notes. They are a gateway into a man’s vision of life and the world. Does that sound overdone? Have you done what I asked? Are you listening to the man play?
I get a kick out of what one website writes in order to offer, as the title of their blog declares, “A Detailed Explanation of Why Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 2 is an Unassailably Epic Work of Genius.” The piece takes the reader/listener through the entire work, piece by piece, offering bits of explanations along with audio clips to back up the claims. The text begins: “You know the second movement, sure. But this whole concerto is one of the greatest works in the piano repertoire. Even its more reserved moments will have you cradling your head in your hands, begging for mercy.”
The blog reminds us that Rachmaninoff had been devastated when his Piano Concerto No. 1 was badly received. He licked his wounds for a couple of years, even resorting to visiting a hypnotherapist to overcome his depression. Surely he was one of the first artists to employ therapy in order to move on from a perceived defeat to continue his work. The blog picks the tale up with this: “Rachmaninov would have been unable to compose anything were it not for the Derren Brown-esque therapy he received from a man called Nikolai Dahl, to whom the concerto was dedicated. Thanks to his course of hypnotherapy, Rachmaninov was once again capable of smashing out great melodies and crunchy piano parts. The second piano concerto was Rachmaninov’s comeback and, like when Take That came back as a man-band with floppy haircuts, it was a huge commercial smash. Just what he needed.”
For those interested in the therapy story, another site tells the tale in a bit more detail:
Rachmaninov composed it [Piano Concerto No. 2] following a period of deep depression during which he questioned whether he could ever compose again.  Response to his First Symphony – after it was initially performed in St. Petersburg – was extremely negative, sending Sergei Vasilievich into a tailspin.
A brilliant pianist with a famously wide hand span, he began to think performing in concert (or conducting) might be a better career path for him.  Deeply unsettled, he began drinking too much alcohol.  By the end of 1899, he was drinking so much that his hands shook – preventing him from playing the piano.
Recognizing he needed help, Rachmaninov visited a Moscow specialist in ‘neuro-psychotherapy,’ named Nikolai Dahl, whom he regularly saw between January and April of 1900. 
Dr. Dahl reportedly used hypnosis to break Rachmaninov’s lethargy and depression, suggesting to him – during trance therapy – that he should compose a new piano concerto which had been commissioned by a London patron. 
The sessions with Dr. Dahl had the desired effect, prompting Sergei Vasilievich to throw himself into his writing.  Composing the 2nd piano concerto, reportedly with renewed zest, he dedicated it to Dr. Dahl.”
Give that some thought the next time you meander past the Pantages on Hollywood Boulevard.