World-class composer Rachmaninoff celebrated in 1920s Winnipeg


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Winnipeg’s early history is dotted with celebrities performing in the city, such as actor Charlie Chaplin and escape artist Harry Houdini.

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Winnipeg’s early history is dotted with celebrities performing in the city, such as actor Charlie Chaplin and escape artist Harry Houdini.

World-famous composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose music the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and pianist Alexei Volodin perform Friday and Saturday at the Centennial Concert Hall, was another visitor to Winnipeg early in the 20th century, performing concerts in 1923 and 1925.

“It’s the 150th anniversary of (the birth of) Rachmaninoff this year. Exactly 100 years ago, to a month, he was in Winnipeg,” says Daniel Raiskin, the WSO’s artistic director. “And now we’re doing a great Rachmaninoff weekend, doing the second and third concertos.”

Rachmaninoff made his Winnipeg debut on Feb. 19, 1923 at the Board of Trade Auditorium, a 3,000-seat hall that was located only a few blocks south on Main Street from where his music will be played tonight.

“Rachmaninoff Arouses Audience to Enthusiasm by His Marvellous Playing,” a headline reads in the next day’s edition of the Manitoba Free Press, which had reported on the hype about the Russian master’s performance for weeks prior to the concert.

The pianist performed works by Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt as well as his own pieces, including Prelude in C Minor, which became so popular he grew to loathe it because everyone wanted to hear him play it.

The Free Press described Rachmaninoff, who was 50 and on a cross-continent tour in 1923, as a tragic figure when reporting on his arrival by train.

He had fled his country during the Russian Revolution in 1917 after Bolsheviks seized his home and property.

“He is tall and slight with just the trace of a stoop,” the unbylined story reads. “He looks a little like the one whose enthusiasms have been dimmed by the tragic memories.”

Raiskin learned of Rachmaninoff’s concerts in Winnipeg after reading an old story in a Minneapolis newspaper describing the next stop on the pianist’s 1923 tour, which launched him into a deep dive into Winnipeg’s concert history.

“It must have been nothing short of revelational, and that’s why two years later he came back again,” Raiskin says.

Rachmaninoff’s return performance was on March 4, 1925 at the Central Congregational Church, which was at the corner of Hargrave Street and Qu’Appelle Avenue.

The Free Press writer, Mary Manners, praised Rachmaninoff’s elegant playing and remarked upon ”the intensity of his face” when he first took the stage.

Volodin and the WSO played Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 30, Friday night, a piece that gained notoriety in the 1996 film Shine.

Saturday, Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 in C minor for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 18, is part of a program that includes Fantasy on a Theme by Beethoven by Ukrainian-Canadian composer Layrsa Kuzmenko and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m.

Twitter: @AlanDSmall

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Read the 1920s Rachmaninoff reviews

Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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