By Eileen Abbott
Based on the long lines of attendees and palpable excitement when the doors opened for the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra’s season finale Saturday night, one might have thought famed composer Sergei Rachmaninoff himself was present for the event that celebrated his life and music.
“I think Rachmaninoff is the Mount Everest of piano concertos,” Erik Child of Arlington said, as he anticipated the joy of listening to Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor. “This is an enthralling experience for the audience and the performers.”
Jennifer Roberts of Sterling, Virginia, was also in the crowd that filled the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus.
“It is music that is truly from the soul,” Roberts said. “Rachmaninoff takes me to another time and place.”
Attendees were able to gain a new appreciation for Rachmainoff by being treated to a talk prior to the performance by his great-grandaughter, Natalie Wanamaker Javier, who joined esteemed Rachmaninoff scholar Francis Crociata — noted by ASO Conductor James Ross as being the preeminent Rachmaninoff scholar in the world — and Library of Congress music specialist Kate Rivers on a panel.
It was a rare behind-the-scenes look at the enigmatic and fascinating composer and piano virtuoso who died in 1943. Rare family photographs were shared along with intriguing details about Rachmaninoff’s life, such as: he enjoyed playing board games, and he loved large, fast American cars. His extraordinary hands were insured by Lloyd’s of London.
But mostly, Javier emphasized she wanted people to know, “[His] music came from his heart.”
Crociata said of Rachmaninoff’s work, “What attracted me to his music is its sincerity and its ingenious construction.”
Ross, who has received praise for infusing energy into and enriching the ASO concert experience, took obvious enjoyment from introducing Javier onstage prior to the concert.
“The woman by my side is in fact the great-granddaughter of the composer Rachmaninoff,” he said to the excited audience.
A vibrant Javier graciously greeted concertgoers, on what, perhaps by serendipity, was her birthday.
“It’s extra special to be here,” Javier said about the occasion dedicated to her great-grandfather.
She said her presence would have pleased Rachmaninoff.
“He loved his family. His family was the most important to him,” Javier said.
“This is a world-class symphony orchestra we’re treated to here,” Arnold Pachtman of Alexandria said. Pachtman and his wife Maria Pachtman particularly wanted to hear pianist Marianna Prjevalskaya play Rachmaninoff’s music.
“This Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 is a truly remarkable piece of music. The finale is technically challenging, the ultimate test. Ms. Prjevalskaya is quite spectacular. It’s a real treat, a rare treat, to be able to have someone of that talent perform for us here,” Arnold Pachtman said.
An elegant Prjevalskaya mesmerized the concertgoers with her masterful command of the technical and musical demands, playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor powerfully and exquisitely.
“She’s definitely the star of the show,” Child said. “It isn’t the easiest. If you can do that, you can pretty much play everything.”
Ellen Cohn of Alexandria said she was beyond pleased with the symphony season and had special praise for Ross.
“With him, there is always something to learn,” Cohn said. “I keep coming back because I like the way they theme the concerts. They do a lot of music people know, but they play in a way like you’re hearing it for the first time.”
The Pachtmans also commended the venue where the Rachmaninoff concert was held.
“It’s wonderful to know that Northern Virginia Community College provides nice cultural events for its students and the public. It is truly a community college,” Arnold Patchtman said. “That means something.”
Crociata said he appreciated that each person at the concert enjoyed a unique experience listening to Rachmaninoff’s music.
“It has the kind of complexity that allows every listener to have their imagination engaged,” Crociata said. “Rachmaninoff never said what each piece meant. He didn’t want to rob from his listeners to draw their own conclusion.”
To learn more about Rachmaninoff, Crociata’s published works provide a depth of details. The Library of Congress is also a resource for Rachmaninoff manuscripts.