Sunday, September 6, 2015

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto

Music: the Most Powerful Force in the Universe

This morning I happened to turn on Turner Classic Movies, my favorite television channel, and caught the end of a 1954 film I remember vividly, Rhapsody. Elizabeth Taylor played an heiress who fancied herself in love with a violinist (Vittorio Gassman) and followed him to a conservatory in Zurich in hopes of marrying him. But a young pianist (John Ericson) falls madly in love with her, and is emotionally distraught when she doesn’t return his affection. He’s preparing for a major concerto performance and in order to help him meet the commitment, she agrees to stay with him. Just before he goes onstage she tells him she’s leaving him for the violinist, assuring him he doesn’t need her. He can play brilliantly whether she’s in his life or not.

She hears the concert and he plays as well as she told him he could; and she realizes she loves him and not the fiddler after all. Happy ending. It’s really not much of a plot, but the music is glorious, and it was filmed when Taylor was probably the most beautiful woman on earth. The piano concerto is possibly the most romantic piece of music ever written, Rachmaninoff’s Second.  

That concerto, and that film, both play a role in my first novel, How I Grew Up. My protagonist Melanie is at the movies when her parents are shot to death by her estranged brother-in-law, and the film she sees is Rhapsody. Melanie’s best friends, Ellen and Krissy, are both musicians and she says to herself she must tell them to see the movie because of the beautiful concerto. Watching the ending today I was pleasantly surprised to realize the entire first movement is played on screen. Or most of it; if there was a cut it was done so skillfully I didn’t notice it. The great Claudio Arrau provided the beautifully performed soundtrack.

Later in the book Krissy hears her own young pianist, Eli Levin, play the same concerto with the local orchestra as a guest artist. Krissy and Melanie live in a town in East Tennessee; Eli lives in New York. Krissy falls in love with Eli when she hears him play Rachmaninoff. It seems their love isn’t meant to be. But Krissy and Eli have their own book, Eli’s Heart. So maybe it is.

The character of Eli Levin is a product of my imagination, but he was inspired by a young pianist I met when we were both fifteen, many decades ago. Samuel Sanders was born with a frightening congenital heart defect, Tetralogy of Fallot, and one of the first things he said to me when I met him was that he didn’t expect to live past thirty. What do you say to a kid who is six months older than you are and makes that casual statement? Sam was a prodigy. He didn’t start playing piano until after he had a surgical procedure in 1947 at the age of nine, and his parents were trying to find a way to keep their baseball loving son occupied. I think everyone was stunned when it was discovered he had this huge talent.

Eventually, Sanders chose to become an accompanist, a collaborating artist rather than a virtuoso. It wasn’t an easy choice for his family to accept. He made a difference in the world of classical music and performed with many notable soloists. And he lived far beyond thirty; he died after a second heart transplant at the age of sixty-two. His life was never easy, though the first heart transplant did give him some good years. 

True story: Sam Sanders played the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto a few months after I met him, and I was in the audience. He was amazing. I’ve never been able to listen to that glorious piece of music without thinking of him.

Both books are available on Amazon. There are links on my website to each book. Local friends: the Pocono Community Theater has paperback copies for purchase at a slightly reduced rate and the books are available whenever the theater is open.