Commentary: The curious case of Rachmaninoff and his connection to Philip Glass

Conrad Tao plays the piano.
Pianist Conrad Tao plays Rachmaninoff at the Soraya at CSUN.
(Luis Luque / Luque Photography)

The first sounds I heard after arriving at Philip Glass’ townhouse in Manhattan’s then-bohemian East Village to interview the composer in 1993 were extraordinary. Glass happened to be in his kitchen listening to a radio broadcast.

“Rachmaninoff!” I blurted out in alarm.

“You know, this is very interesting,” Glass replied. He had gone into the kitchen for something and became fascinated by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 that happened to be playing.

In modern music circles, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and this notorious potboiler, in particular, was to be avoided at all costs throughout much of the 20th century. In a fabled 1950 incident that has gone down in the history books, Morton Feldman, then a budding 24-year-old composer, introduced himself to the famed 37-year-old avant-gardist John Cage as both fled a New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall. Each had come to hear a rare Anton Webern performance but had no intention of staying for Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.” Half a century later, Carnegie mounted a three-day festival, “When Morty Met John,” celebrating the encounter the venue touted as a seminal event in its and American music’s history.


At age 86, composer Steve Reich is going strong with a collaboration with painter Gerhard Richter and other recent works at the L.A. Phil, among other projects.

April 5, 2023

Was that day in 1993 in Glass’ kitchen a When-Philip-Met-Sergei moment? Could be.

We are now in the midst of celebrating the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s birth, on April 1, 1873, and it’s been next to impossible to miss the Russian composer. Everywhere you turn, his music is being played, but in a radically different context than it had once been. Rachmaninoff has gone from being widely viewed as a musical archconservative to a protomodernist.

His music now fits snuggly in programs with just about anything you want, including that of the famed Hungarian avant-gardist György Ligeti, whose birth centennial is also being celebrated this year. Rachmaninoff and Glass or John Adams or Stravinsky or even Schoenberg? Now a no-brainer. Last summer, the erudite Bard Music Festival in New York examined Rachmaninoff as “one of the last great Romantics” who “navigated between Russia and modernity.”

Recently at the Soraya, the inquisitive young pianist Conrad Tao celebrated the Rachmaninoff anniversary by combining him with Billy Strayhorn, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen. Who knew that Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G, Opus 32, No. 5 might make a suitable prelude to “Take the A Train”?

Events of the last few weeks and more to come have, in fact, demonstrated that Los Angeles plays an unrecognized and not insignificant role in all this, and particularly the Glass-Rachmaninoff relationship.

It begins in 1919 with Los Angeles Philharmonic founder William Andrews Clark inviting Rachmaninoff to be the orchestra’s first music director. The composer, then 47 and also a celebrated pianist and conductor, had fled the Russian Revolution two years earlier, to live in the West.

WHEN the Los Angeles Philharmonic first began giving concerts at the Hollywood Bowl in 1922, they were called “Symphonies Under the Stars,” and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony -- first performed in Russia 14 years earlier -- was relatively new music.

Aug. 17, 2006

Rachmaninoff refused. He was temporarily living in Menlo Park at the time, and the young composer Henry Cowell, who would later serve as a mentor to Cage, went to see him. Rachmaninoff told Cowell his music was nothing but wrong notes yet encouraged him to continue to experiment, nonetheless. Rachmaninoff said he once wrote “wrong notes” too. That’s how you grow. Cowell took that to mean simply continue on his wrong-note path and, in the process, created what we now think of as the eclectic West Coast style, which looks East as well as West.


I might not have been so surprised by Glass’ Rachmaninoff moment had I recalled that nine years earlier, Glass had been engaged by Robert Wilson to write two of the sections of what was going to be an eight-hour eclectic operatic extravaganza unlike anything previously imagined as the centerpiece of the 1984 L.A. Olympic Arts Festival. Each of the several proposed sections to “the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down” was created in a different country and the whole thing was meant to be given at the Shrine Auditorium, although U.S. funding fell through at the last minute. Most of the sections were created, including one in Rotterdam, with music by an imaginative young Greek composer and pianist, Nicolas Economou, who also around that time joined Martha Argerich for a recording of the two-piano version of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.”

Fast-forward to a recital by Yuja Wang a year ago at Walt Disney Concert Hall. One of her encores was Glass’ Piano Etude No. 6. Wang’s virtuosic wizardry transformed a somewhat modest, minimalistic exercise into something downright Rachmaninoff-ian, full of extraordinary, heart-pumping dramatic contrasts.

Her next appearance at Disney was in February for — what else? — Rachmaninoff. Over a span of two weeks, she joined Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Phil as soloist in all five of the composer’s scores for piano and orchestra. The festival drew an excitedly diverse and trendy crowd, with Wang’s electrifying currency making Rachmaninoff sound as hip as Glass.

On Super Bowl Sunday, I rushed from Wang’s exhilarating matinee performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 to an all-Glass concert in Santa Monica by the new music series Jacaranda. That program showcased similarly exhilarating performances of Glass’ early “Music in Similar Motion” and “Music in Contrary Motion.” It began, however, with composer and pianist Timo Andres playing his own eloquent take on none other than Glass’ Piano Etude No. 6, which he then repeated as an encore.

American Ballet Theatre presents the North American premiere of the full-length story ballet based on Laura Esquivel’s novel “Like Water for Chocolate.”

April 1, 2023

It doesn’t stop there. Three days later at the Soraya, there was an appearance by Brno Philharmonic playing a program of its native Czech music and led by its American music director, Dennis Russell Davies. Davies just happens to be a leading Glass exponent who has premiered the majority of the composer’s symphonies, concertos and operas. He is also a fine pianist, and it was he who proposed to Glass the idea of writing a series of piano etudes. The first group of six became a birthday present to Davies.

Then — wouldn’t you know it? — shortly after Davies returned to Brno with his orchestra (which has just released a recording of Glass’ Symphony No. 12, “Lodger,” featuring Angélique Kidjo), he led a concert that pitted Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony with Alfred Schnittke’s strikingly unconventional Third Violin Concerto. Davies was once music director of the American Composers Orchestra in New York and of the new music Cabrillo Festival in Aptos, founded by the quintessential California composer Lou Harrison (another Cowell mentee). Davies’ clear, incisive Rachmaninoff reading, which I caught on a livestream of the Brno concert, contained the coolness of Aaron Copland yet flowed with the melodic lyricism of Harrison. Played by musicians from Leoš Janáček’s hometown, Rachmaninoff easily here took his rightful place in 20th century music.

It has reached the point today that any hardcore new music advocate needing to escape Rachmaninoff in the concert hall had better have a good pair of running shoes. Argerich’s Rachmaninoff recording with Economou, which sounds almost like electronic music when listened to today, may have set the modernist Rachmaninoff tone. Another arresting two-piano Rachmaninoff recording made by Argerich eight years later with the mystical composer and pianist Alexandre Rabinovitch (now Rabinovitch-Barakovsky) is even more modern-sounding and, in my book, one of the great, yet neglected, piano recordings of our time. But it was a 2009 concert in Germany that fully turned the tide.

Serbian pianist Tamara Stefanovich alternated six Rachmaninoff “Etudes-Tableaux” with six etudes by Ligeti that exploit all kinds of late 20th century techniques. So explicit was the fit that Pierre Boulez, who had no patience with throwback Romanticism, said that Rachmaninoff’s piano music can be interesting.


Succeeding music directors of the Boulez-founded Ensemble Intercontemporain have come to embrace Rachmaninoff. Susanna Mälkki led a bracing account of the “Symphonic Dances” in its orchestra guise with the L.A. Phil last season. In January, David Robertson conducted the Finnish Radio Symphony in a bracing program of Ligeti’s “San Francisco Polyphony,” John Adams’ “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” (written for Wang and premiered by the L.A. Phil) and Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony.

In fact, the L.A. Phil happened to be an outlier with its Rachmaninoff Festival, sticking only to the composer and not, as it often does, commissioning new or presenting recent works to go along with the old. But when the Pasadena Symphony last month featured the brilliant young Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev in a commanding performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, guest conductor Rebecca Tong introduced that with Chinese American Huang Ruo’s “Folk Songs for Orchestra.” For the Pasadena Symphony’s upcoming program on April 29, Japanese conductor Kensho Watanabe will pair Carlos Simon’s 2019 “The Block,” which portrays the Harlem of Romare Bearden’s paintings, with the “Symphonic Dances.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony in E Minor is not played too often, according to Ted Stern, conductor of the Glendale College Community Orchestra, which will play the piece for its final concert of the season on Sunday.

June 3, 1993

While Stefanovich did find real commonality between Rachmaninoff and Ligeti, often in the cross rhythms and irregular counterpoint, much of what makes Rachmaninoff modern is simply our less doctrinaire ideas of modernity. It is easy to point out that the composer enjoyed modern conveniences and took an interest in technology. He loved driving fast sports cars and speedboats. He paid attention to jazz and popular music. He kept company with many in the world of show business, including Noël Coward.

But what made Tao’s program work as well as it did was the way it showed just how much attention popular and film composers paid to Rachmaninoff. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” played with exceptional aplomb by Tao in a version inspired by Art Tatum, puts it all together. Rachmaninoff was a supreme melodist. He was one of the century’s greatest pianists. And Tao, who had a huge technique and made the instrument thunder or be as quiet as a pin dropping, put it all together.

Strayhorn’s melancholic “Lush Life” might well have represented the lush life Rachmaninoff led all the while pining for the old Russia that no longer existed. He never returned to his homeland. The composer, who died in 1943, spent his last two years in Beverly Hills, where he had bought a house on North Elm Drive.

Tao ended his recital joined by Jay Campbell for Rachmaninoff’s early Cello Sonata. Campbell, the cellist in the JACK Quartet and one of the most remarkable proponents of new music, was restrained and seemingly noncommittal, barely heard at times, letting the pianist dominate.

But if that led to a disconnect, suggesting that perhaps Rachmaninoff can only be modern up to a point, the chamber music ensemble Camerata Pacifica intends to give it another go. Its upcoming program performed in Ventura, San Marino, L.A. and Santa Barbara includes contemporary works along with an intriguing new arrangement of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata for French horn.


Even Feldman now fits into the Rachmaninoff picture. Next up for Tao is an appearance at Bang on a Can‘s Long Play Festival in Brooklyn on the first weekend of May. The pianist here will be joined by another exceptional modernist, percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, for a performance of Feldman’s “Triadic Memories.”

That long, slow, quiet score may not sound at all like Rachmaninoff. But it does show that the memories of triadic harmony, so close to the Russian tradition, return in new ways in the works of both Feldman and Glass. It is worth further pondering what the connoisseur of fast cars would have made of these Americans, sons of Russian and Lithuanian immigrants, respectively.

‘Camerata Pacific’

Where: Museum of Ventura County, The Huntington, The Colburn School and Music Academy of the West

When: April 16 - 21. Check website for dates and times.

Pricing: $68 all venues