The Rachmaninoff of Dave Malloy’s 2015 musical play “Preludes” exists in and out of time. Performed by a diverse cast of virtuosic Boston award winners, “Preludes” is showing this winter at Boston’s Lyric Stage (I attended on Jan. 26th and performances through February 5th). Information HERE. The play features 13 songs with piano (in the same sense as a musical or number opera), washed over by an electropop score typical of composer Dave Malloy’s complex modern musicals. These are completed (and competed with) by a vivid, unhinged sound design by Andrew Dunkan Will — almost a character in its own right. We encounter a work written by a musician for those of us who know what it is to suffer writer’s block, to practice obsessively, to worry about a legacy, and to relive old performances. It’s heartbreaking, turbulent, and deeply musical.
The structure of “Preludes” does not follow a chronological approach to story development. Malloy gives us glimpses of artists in conversation with the young Rachmaninoff through frequent flashbacks. “Rach,” played by the vibrant and committed Dan Prior, is struggling. He is consumed with frustration over the premiere of his first symphony (March 28, 1897) and worried that his teenage hit, the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, op. 3, no. 2 will overshadow the rest of his career. You can hear the composer’s own recording of the piece on a Lauter concert grand in Edison’s studio in 1919 [HERE] and a filtered/edited version of his 1928 recording for Electrola/Victor [HERE].
That Prelude is the heart of this play. Its first performance, at the Moscow Electrical Exhibition of 1892 helped to establish Rachmaninoff as a professional composer, just three months out of the Moscow Conservatory. The opening “bells of Moscow” octaves in the left hand permeate the first act — they ask us to reflect upon and reconsider the power of an early musical success. Will he ever reach that height again? Will its sound drown out all future sounds? How could this work be “successful” (well-known) and yet bring him no financial reward (he received no royalties from its continued publication beyond the initial publishing fee of 40 rubles)?
Rach’s confessional speeches crescendo and spiral out of control: he speaks in fugues, sings in stretto, plays alone, plays duets, and chews up the scenery like someone on the brink of a breakdown. Dan Prior’s Rach develops the historical Rachmaninoff from January-April 1900 through the lens of a modern therapist’s office (with current references to subways, rock, and jazz): 26 years old, exhausted from touring as a pianist, and frustrated with teaching lessons. The composer had described his writer’s block from 1897-1900 as having “suffered a stroke and for a long time had lost the use of his head and hands.” How might he recover and begin to compose again?
Malloy’s main setting for the play is a single room: a dreamlike version of the studio in which physician Nikolai Vladimirovich Dahl (often called Nicolai Dahl, 1860-1939) treated Moscow’s luminaries. Scenic designer Shelley Barish vastly improves on the mostly black-and-white backstage setting of the work’s New York premiere, littering lilacs throughout the set and collaborating with lighting designer Karen Perlow to flood the room with light and psychedelic color. This room is expanded both in space — to include the constant presence of a second Rachmaninoff, seated at a white Yamaha grand piano at center stage — and in time (costumes are mostly contemporary, with Dahl in a Pink Floyd T-shirt). In a brilliant stroke of casting, Lyric Stage’s longtime Music Director Dan Rodriguez is seated at the piano for most of the action. His combination of Rachmaninoff’s original music and Malloy’s incidental music, song accompaniments, and diegetic “practicing/composing” provides the authentic musical heart of the whole production.
Sometimes, Malloy gives us too much to listen to. But that’s the whole point: how is it possible to compose something truly “new” when flooded with sounds of the past and present? How does a musician quiet his/her/their mind enough to work on one piece without being overwhelmed by remembered sounds? During at least three songs, the volume and intensity of this “modern” collection of sounds often overwhelmed the voices and stories, pulling us out of time, and emphasizing the trance-inducing aspects of the score.
Malloy draws us further away from a purely historical portrayal of Rachmaninoff’s visits to Dahl by flooding the small performing space (100 audience members in an expanded black box theater) with electronic musique concrete (including heartbeats and sirens) and electronic sound collages accompanied by additional keyboard playing behind a scrim (the invisible, but crucial Bethany Aiken and Mindy Cimini). We hear phrases of classical music presented multiple ways and sometimes overlapped: two- and four-piano versions of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, at least half of the complete Prelude in C-sharp, and other bits from the five-movement Morceaux de fantaisie collection (op. 3) and the early opera Aleko (both 1892), the symphonic poem The Rock and the second movement of his Trio élégiaque No. 2 based on it (both 1893). Many of these quotations, like the Trio, composed as a tribute to Tchaikovsky after his death from cholera, cast a pall of gloom over the stage.
A complete movement of the Moments musicaux (1896), his famous Vocalise (published 1915), and choral music from the All-Night Vigil (sung one to a part) are quoted in Malloy’s three most effective and memorable songs. The Moments collection was the last music completed before Rachmaninoff’s “breakdown;” the Vocalise and All-Night Vigil date from Rach’s future—the winter of 1915—but represent the culmination of over two decades of study of Kievan and Znamenny chant, especially as used by Tchaikovsky in his own settings of the same texts (1882). The Second Concerto was Rachmaninoff’s first big success after almost 90 days of continuous treatment by Dahl: he dedicated the work to the physician, and then was able to recommence his career by early 1901.
Sine “Preludes” exists in a frame loosely depicting Rachmaninoff’s daily visits to Nikolai Dahl, additional characters are introduced through flashbacks and family scenes. While the sessions occurred in 1900, the script propels us earlier and (much) later. This is a work that delights in anachronism. The essential Will McGarrahan transforms from the physician/playwright Anton Chekhov on his way out to hunt (“Ho-Ho,” sung with Chekhov’s gun over his shoulder), to Rachmaninoff’s supporter Pyotr Tchaikovsky (“Child’s Song”), just before his shocking death, to the elderly “Voice of Russia” Lev Tolstoy (representing critics who don’t “get” his music), to a hilariously mean-spirited version of the conductor of his first symphony, to Tsar Nicholas II (giving marital advice), and finally, to a version of Dave Malloy himself, who promises a kind of legacy by reminding the composer that there are a lot of “us” (devoted listeners) in his future.
The outstanding discovery of this production is newcomer Kayla Shimzu, portraying Rachmaninoff’s first cousin and his future wife. Ironically, Natalya was also a piano teacher and performer, but is the only actor not allowed to touch the piano. Her warm, heartbreaking support of Rach in the duet “Not Alone” contrasts with a show-stopping belted climax in “Lilacs.” Towering over the cast vocally is the multi-talented bass Anthony Pires, Jr.: his humorous portrayal of the young Feodor Chaliapin, the composer’s longtime friend who later traveled with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for their first season, sustains the musical intensity of show through lusty duets (“Ho-Ho”), pop/rock showpieces (“Loop”), and crucial basso profundo lines in choral sections (“Vespers”).
The first act opens with a quick series of one mad scene and two duets: “Your Day” (Rach in mid-breakdown, supported by Chorus and overwhelmed by electronics); “Lilacs” (Natalya and Rach); and “Ho-Ho” (Chaliapin and Chekhov). “Vocalise,” with Natalya sustaining the famous melody, is accompanied by a sometimes-simplified haunting piano bassline reminiscent of Sara Bareilles’ best Elton John arrangements [Listen HERE]
“Subway” (Rach and Chorus); “Tchaikovsky’s Child Song” (Tchaikovsky and Rach); and “Natalya” (the only true Broadway-style solo ballad) conclude the first Act.
“Loop,” which opens Act Two, is a fully psychedelic, trance-inducing spectacle for a Chaliapin — he has recently returned from India (maybe with the Beatles?). It is heavily informed by, and sometimes overwhelmed by, Variation 18 from Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. “Not Alone” presents the most intimate duet of the show, texting the full heartbreaking D-flat major barcarolle from Moments Musicaux no. 5.
“The First Symphony” presents an elaborate full company number centering around a maudlin, caricatured version of professor/conductor Alexander Glazunov on one of his worst days. “Vespers” remains faithful to its musical inspiration, sung in Church Slavonic with electronic augmentation by a solo quintet based on music from his All-Night Vigil, led by Kayla Shimizu). The play concludes with “Hypnosis” (finally featuring Dahl, sung very movingly by Aimee Doherty), and “Mountains,” a shattering breakthrough featuring the first and second themes from the opening movement of his Second Piano Concerto. At last, we are released from the prison of the composer’s mind. Melody sweeps over the audience, cleansing us of the ordeal of composition, and leaving us with its fruits.
This a kaleidoscopic work, which can be enjoyed (or hated) on many conflicting levels. Malloy’s biggest success so far has been his Tony Award-winning treatment of 70 pages from Part 8 of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: the “electropop opera” Natasha, Pierre & the Comet of 1812, which played at ART in during the winter of 2015-16 and then enjoyed 32 previews and 336 performances on Broadway from November 2016-September 2017. That work’s 28 musical numbers combined Russian folk and classical music with indie rock and EDM influences. Like Preludes, the production was co-developed with director Rachel Chavkin (2019 Tony winner for best direction of a musical – Hadestown).
When “Preludes” premiered at Lincoln Center’s black box theater (on the roof of its bigger Broadway house) in the summer of 2015, reviews focused on its “nightmarish” and youthful aspects (Variety),n its almost constant use of Malloy’s trademark rock and electronic elements (New York Post), and the unusual structure of the musical play’s book, which turns over and over upon its own narrative in the manner of practicing scales (Hollywood Reporter).
This is an intimate story, culminating in a conversation between the young Rachmaninoff and a modern listener (perhaps representing Malloy himself?), who grows up obsessively listening to records of rock music and one special Van Cliburn performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Boston reviews have ranged from contrasting celebrations of the cast’s strengths (WBUR) and (ArtsFuse), to deep concern with the show’s premise and construction (Globe).
As someone who gives private piano lessons to financially supplement life as a practicing musicologist, I found this work both incredibly frustrating (turn off the electronics and let me hear the Rachmaninoff…) and in the end, transformative. I returned home and spent three hours playing the Moments musicaux. Listen to my favorite version of No. 5 played by Vladimir Ashkenazy [HERE].
My paternal grandmother, Margaret Jean Wilhoit Stanfield, briefly played professionally in Chicago and Champaign in the 1930s while earning her M. A. in English Literature at UIUC. Due to the depression, she returned to our tiny hometown of Kansas, IL to eventually become a piano teacher in her home: these works by Rachmaninoff, along with Christian Sinding’s “Rustle of Spring,” became her touchstones, and I remember hearing her play them before my own lesson began. These were my earliest moments of repose, of relief from a family filled with younger siblings, herds of ponies, and constant school activities. Rachmaninoff’s seemingly infinite capacity for simple lyricism, for sustaining a mood through subtle stepwise motion, for complete (but gentle) independence between the hands, for endless suspensions, buried in the center of the two hands… these are elements that Dave Malloy feels very deeply. And for anyone who grew up in the 1960s-80s, surrounded by blues rock, progressive rock, indie rock, and the psychedelic scene, you can hear the modern composer of Preludes fighting his way out of the same cloud of sound to reach Rachmaninoff’s soaring masterpiece in the end.