Excerpted from “Tales from Utah Valley,” a history published by the Daily Herald in 2005.
For years, Herald R. Clark, Brigham Young University’s Dean of the College of Commerce (Business School), scheduled lyceums in the Provo Tabernacle for the benefit of university students and residents of the area. Not wishing Utah Valley to revert to the cultural wasteland it had been during the early years of settlement, he intended the lyceums to plant seeds that would eventually sprout in the form of further cultural refinement and civilization.
Late in 1938, Clark achieved Provo’s cultural coup of the century. He arranged for a concert from world-famous pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.
As the date of the concert drew near, the excitement in Provo heightened. Local people surely gloated over the fact that although the pianist planned a visit to Salt Lake City, he did not schedule a concert in Utah’s capital. Bragging rights went to Provo on this occasion. To make the affair even more memorable, Rachmaninoff planned to play the same program featuring compositions of the world’s greatest romantic and classical composers that he had performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall in November. Even if it was for only one night, little-old Provo would be on the same level of refinement as the nation’s cultural center. Olin Downes, music critic for the New York Times, wrote concerning Rachmaninoff’s New York concert: “The sovereign qualities of a great art were never more manifest in their presence and in their effect than when Rachmaninoff gave his piano recital in Carnegie Hall.”
Clark and the other organizers expected a large crowd at the Tabernacle. Because of limited seating, they decided not to sell any tickets but to limit attendance to BYU students and those who held season tickets to the BYU Community Concert Association series. Toexpand the seating capacity as much as possible, the custodian placed extra chairs throughout the building, and organizers decided to allow people to stand in the aisles and in every possible corner. On the night of the concert, Provo’s chief of police assigned extra patrolmen to handle the crowd and keep order on the tabernacle block.
Apparently this was one of the rare occasions when the good people of Utah Valley disregarded “Mormon Standard Time” and arrived early instead of late. The concert was scheduled to begin at 8:15 p.m. and by 6:30, a long line had already formed. At 7:30, a line of concertgoers four abreast stretched from the tabernacle to Center Street. By 8 p.m. the tabernacle bulged with at least one-sixth of Provo’s population.
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The 65-year-old master of the keyboard was born on his grandparent’s estate near Lake Hem in the Novgorod district of Russia. Had it not been for his father’s penchant for losing money on risky business ventures, Rachmaninoff may have found a career in the military. Hisfather retired from the army as an officer, and his maternal grandfather achieved the rank of general. However, Rachmaninoff’s father lost the family fortune and deserted his wife and children.
Fortunately, one of young Sergei’s cousins, a well-known concertpianist, noticed the 9-year-old boy’s aptitude for music and suggested that he study with a piano teacher in Moscow. Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892. At the age of 19, he composed the famous “Prelude in C Sharp Minor” which brought him instant notoriety. This piece and his other musical compositions maintained the romantic tradition of Tchaikovsky.
During his youth, Rachmaninoff suffered from self-doubt and deep depression. He sought the help of a prominent psychiatrist, Nikolay Dahl. In gratitude for the help he received, Rachmaninoff dedicated his best-known composition, the “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor,” to Dahl. The piece premiered in Moscow in 1901.
Rachmaninoff married his cousin, Natalie Satin, in 1902. He worked as a conductor in the Bolshoi Theater until 1906 when he and his family moved to Dresden. In 1909, he completed his first concert tour to America. He and his wife and two daughters moved to the United States in 1918 after the Russian Revolution. Although he lived in the United States most of the rest of his life and became a United States citizen just before his death in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1943, Rachmaninoff never fully mastered the English language or became acclimated to American culture. He missed his native land and the Russian people and preferred to live a rather isolated life with his family and close friends.
After he left Russia, Rachmaninoff wrote little music but devoted himself to concerts. During the 1938-39 season, he scheduled about three dozen concerts, one of which was to be in Provo on Dec. 5, 1938.
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When Rachmaninoff arrived in Utah after a concert in Spokane, Wash., he spent some time in Salt Lake City before traveling to Provo. As the great pianist walked onto the stage in the Provo Tabernacle that evening, the audience became “wildly enthusiast,” according to a report printed in The Salt Lake Tribune. Rachmaninoff did not display the showmanship of a rhinestone-covered Liberace. He showed no trace of being moved by the warm reception of the crowd as he moved slowly and deliberately, as if it took great effort, toward the piano, which incidentally, was his own.
Of his appearance, Gail Martin, who covered the concert for the Deseret News, observed, “Rachmaninoff looks more like a monk, worn by rigid asceticism and a contempt for the vanities of this world, than a world favorite.” However, George W. Seide felt that despite this singular indifference to showmanship, Rachmaninoff charmed the audience. Seide’s article in the Evening Herald said: “Ripping with uncanny dexterity, Rachmaninoff wove musical glories into technically intricate passages of which only those who watched those groomed hands fly might best be aware. ... Each immortal composer lived as a distinctive personality in the incarnation by Rachmaninoff’s skill.”
About those groomed hands, Phillip Clark, 75-year-old son of Herald R. Clark, tells an interesting story. Phillip did not attend the concert, but his father later told him that during the intermission Rachmaninoff put on a pair of electric gloves to keep his hands warm and supple for the second half of the concert.
Eighty-two-year-old Homer Clark, Phillip’s brother, possesses two unique souvenirs of the concert. According to Phillip, Rachmaninoff drank a cup of coffee during intermission, and the chain-smoking Russian also enjoyed a clandestine smoke, tapping the ashes into the saucer. Mable Clark, wife of Herald R., kept the two mementos and never washed them. For years, they retained the coffee stains and ashes. The two artifacts were passed down to Homer.
Sometime during the concert, the Orem Inter-Urban railroad took center stage. The tracks ran down the road on two sides of the tabernacle. As the stoic master pianist played a classical composition inside the tabernacle, “Leaping Lena” performed a composition of her own as she turned the corner from University Avenue and hissed and clanked up 100 South just outside the building, her insistent bell competing with the melodic notes issuing from Rachmaninoff’s piano. Monroe Paxman, who attended the concert, said the bell was not a “ding, ding, ding,” but a “clang, clang, clang.” The unflappable pianist apparently stopped at the end of a measure, and according to Shirley Paxman, kept his hands suspended above the keyboard until the train pulled into the station and the incessant clanging ceased. Phyllis Olsen also attended theconcert. She agrees that Rachmaninoff paused while the train passed, but she remembers that he sat with folded arms and waited for thenoise to end before he began playing again exactly where he had pausedand subsequently finished the piece. The newspaper did not mention
“Leaping Lena’s” supporting role in the concert, although the Evening Herald’s correspondent dropped a hint of that fine musical achievement when he wrote, “Little annoyances might be noted in the evening, but of these it would be best to forget.” Apparently the people who were in attendance that night did not heed the writer’s advice to bury these memories in oblivion. Most old-timers who attended the concert would find it impossible to recall the names of an three compositions Rachmaninoff played that night, but almost all of the attendees can remember who played the percussion solo.
When Rachmaninoff played the last note of the last composition on the program, he disappeared from the stage without the hint of a smile. The audience of about 3,000 broke into what The Salt Lake Tribune called “tumultuous and insistent applause,” which lasted for a full two and a half minutes. The pianist returned for acknowledgments twice. Then, though it may have required some effort, he encored with his famous “Prelude in C Sharp Minor,” a piece that was requested so frequently that he had become tired of it. After the encore, Rachmaninoff disappeared from the stage again and almost instantly left the tabernacle and was gone. Not long afterward, he left Provo for his next concert in Minneapolis.
Though Rachmaninoff only stayed in Provo a short time and his performance was unceremoniously interrupted by the cacophonous notes played by “Leaping Lena’s” bell, he was not soon forgotten. Many people agreed with George W. Seide, who wrote, “Always he will live in memory — stern perhaps in person, but blood and fire and warm emotion at the keyboard.”