The circulation in my right hand ebbed, but I dared not shift position. Aria’s grip was relentless as her body bounced with giddy joy. Our four eyes were transfixed on the hands of a blonde boy-man, moving at commanding speed across the grand piano’s 88 keys. We were in the thrall of our first live performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto on a perfect summer evening at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Aria, my 16-year-old daughter, first heard “the Rach 3,” as aficionados call it, when she was around seven. I had downloaded several CDs onto my car’s audio system — Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” Queen’s “Greatest Hits,” and the Rach 2 and 3 piano concertos — so Aria and her siblings were exposed to great rock and graduate level classical music on a regular basis for years.
I say graduate level because Rachmaninoff, although delightfully melodic at times, is highly complex thematically and rhythmically, with long sections of mind-blowing piano wizardry that can easily lose a novice ear. It’s a far cry from Ludwig von Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” which is more typical fare for the pre-teen set.
Nonetheless, with frequency of play and thankfully welcomed explanatory narration from yours truly, Aria came to cherish “the Rach 3,” a precocious outcome for a teen girl.
Mid-summer 2022, on a family road trip, Aria and I regaled my wife Kris with the beauty of “the Rach 3” and, although not a classical music lover, she agreed to a listen. For 45 minutes we hummed, conducted, squealed, and pointed out interesting motifs. Seeing her husband and daughter so enraptured by the music trumped the unfamiliar cacophony that met her ears.
Someone wondered aloud when we’d finally get to see the piece performed live. A quick Google search led me to www.bachtrack.com, where I discovered every place in the world the concerto was being performed in the coming months. London, anyone? How about Prague? Nope and nope. Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts? Yup. On the spot I ordered tickets. A “Rach 3” road trip went from dream to reality in minutes.
It was a perfect night at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and Boston Pops. The outdoor amphitheater was buzzing with excitement. The couple next to us introduced themselves and asked if we had come to see Malofeev.
“Malowho?” I responded. A mix of shock and delight crossed the man’s face as he gushed about the treat we were in for. Alexander Malofeev, a not-yet-21-year-old Russian phenom, was the pianist. I said we had come from Virginia for the concerto without regard for who was performing it.
As we read his bio in the program, our excitement grew. Malofeev burst onto the world stage before turning ten. Aria and I have since watched hours of his YouTube videos, performing Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Mozart, and more. Stunning, powerful, precise, and focused are some of the words that come to mind as I watch him conquer the great piano canon.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the lights dimmed and conversation reduced to a murmur. Acclaimed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas mounted the podium and the BSO knocked out a delightful warm-up, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Dubinushka.”
Then a stagehand raised the lid of the grand piano and moments later Malofeev entered from stage left. He shook hands with the concertmaster and conductor, took his seat, placed a folded handkerchief on the piano, and gave the “let’s-get-this-show-on-the-road” nod to Tilson Thomas.
Mesmerizing and Humbling
Thus began 45 minutes of musical triumphalism. “The Rach 3” is rated “ridiculously difficult” to play by talkclassical.com. (Here’s a link to Malofeev performing the concerto in 2019. At 40:10, the finale, his hands move with blazing speed yet yield utter coherence.) However impressive it is on YouTube, it was materially better in person.
To be in the presence of such extreme talent is mesmerizing and humbling. I am the four-time international whistling champion and Malofeev is an order of magnitude beyond me. Prodigy is an understatement, as is wunderkind. Accompanied by one of the world’s top orchestras under the baton of a master conductor, Malofeev performing one of the most complex and beautiful pieces of music ever written, all while having my precious daughter grip my hand, has left an indelible mark on my heart and brain.
My tears may have obscured the view of Malofeev’s wizardry, but my ears heard every note. I have utter confidence that God gave the world this young man. Through preternatural talent, innumerable hours of practice, and complete commitment to his art, he brought incalculable joy and hope to a father and daughter on a “Rach 3” road trip. For that, I’ve got to hand it to him.