Valley Voices

Bob Marcotte: Playing Rachmaninoff is a marathon human experience

Bob Marcotte
Bob Marcotte

While it’s never silent, it was still. I sat with my hands clasped, eyes closed. The audience was politely curious – what was I doing? Was I praying? If so, to whom?

I threw the heavy blanket over my soul. No more thoughts, no more me, just peace. I indulged for a long second before I opened the time tunnel I had constructed so carefully during rehearsals. Dear audience, this is where I am. I am feeling.

Rachmaninoff. Just the mention of his name reminds me of his manic-depressive soul as it pours out pain in loud, jagged-edged passages, followed by whispered, intimate beauty. He immerses you in one perfect, undisturbed heartbeat after another until he forcefully rips it away.

How fast are the angry passages? They are taking-the-corners-on-two-wheels fast, with all the anger I can muster but control.

How tender are the quiet sections? They are as pure as the anger is raw.

It is the deep, mature love of adults; physical, sensuous, sweaty, passionate and often complicated, pain-filled and denied. Every note must convey this melancholy; it is Rachmaninoff’s essence and the beating heart of all Russian music.

My hands come up to meet the keyboard in concert with my breathing. The ivory feels chilled against the pads of my fingers. This will change.

I inhale and absorb as much energy as I can for the marathon human experience that awaits me, awaits us. I must perform to an excellent level if I am to carry these souls with me through the tunnel, and that is my purpose.

The Second Piano Concerto opens with eight massive chords from the piano. My hands shape into the claws I need to express the composer’s intent and then play with horrible power. These are terrible chords written to rattle the walls of hell, and they do.

In Bar 9, the orchestra comes in and we immediately clash. They are playing long flowing lines while my arpeggios crash against them and through them. Each of my hands are playing 16 notes per bar to their two. This rhythmic dissonance is unsettling, but nowhere near the intensity that’s to come later.

The notes become elemental, they collide and bond; become new musical colors and thoughts. The piano is asked to pirouette like an ice dancer over the orchestra’s harmony at times, but the passion always returns, as does the loneliness.

In the second movement, my hands become new creations. Each finger brings its own song, and they are delicate, caressing, exactly how I touched you, my love, for those 24 years. I am not aware of anything but the soul-bearing honesty I am expressing to you.

This is what made returning to music so difficult. I rely on Rachmaninoff to express my beautiful frustration, especially when the orchestra drops away and it’s only us. My hands have ascended to be with you in heaven, to touch you once more.

The final movement starts as unsettled as you would expect, but there is one last love song to sing to you. It is pushed aside by a heroic and virtuosic conversation between the piano and orchestra. My hands once again become claws with the energy, but not the anger, of the first movement.

Now it is time for the audience members to use their hands and legs; they rise as one in applause for the song that was meant for one.

My hands, while warm, do not sweat; while puffy are not swollen. They clasp in gratitude over my heart to the audience, as I stand with you again.

Bob Marcotte of Fresno is music minister at Saint Columba’s Episcopal Church. He also is an author, photographer, and was a caregiver to his remarkable wife, Carole, for four years during her cancer journey. His blog is