Steven Osborne on Feeling, Soul Searching, and Rachmaninoff
A pianist reflects on the value of music in a troubled world.
This piece was originally a draft from when I worked at Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. It was never published, and I want to thank USUO and Steven Osborne for granting me the rights to rework it and publish it for you here.
People love to pick apart art. They’ll analyze it to its core to find even the tiniest speck of meaning—this is especially true in classical music. It’s not uncommon for people to post long Twitter threads, do deep dives on Reddit boards, or record an entire series of podcast episodes decoding their favorite composer’s work. The truth is usually less exciting, and not all classical music can be framed in this manner. After all, Mozart was a bit of a spendthrift who needed to pay the bills. Bach had 20 children to support. And it certainly didn’t pay to live in Austria during the Napoleonic wars—even if you were Beethoven. Sometimes art is just art for art’s sake.
There are those few magnificent gems in the classical repertoire, however, that capture the soul of the composer and the imaginations of audiences. For me, two of these gems are Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 and Vocalise.
No need for words
Pianist Steven Osborne shared his thoughts on Rachmaninoff’s emotional impact on him and the impression Rachmaninoff’s body of work leaves on audiences. The Observer once described Osborne as “always a player in absolute service to the composer.” He doesn’t view himself this way.
“That’s something similar to what I strive for, but more precisely, I’m seeking to serve the music, which isn’t always the same thing as serving the composer.” He added that some composers feel extremely dogmatic—which is rarely helpful for a performer.
Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise is an unusual piece because it lends itself to artistic interpretation. Composed and published in 1915, it was written for the human voice and piano accompaniment or orchestra. The work itself contains no words, so the vocalist is free to sing using the vowel of their choice. It’s literally a song that doesn’t require words. Composers and arrangers have since adapted it for different instruments and voice types—a metaphor for the artist’s process.
Regardless of a composer’s approach to the piece, Osborne explores the piece by discovering how it feels to him and determining how to immerse the listener in the complex emotions of the work. “Ultimately,” he said, “I’m trying to find an unbroken thread of meaning in the music from first note to last.” He cited two pianists he admired, Radu Lupu and Nicholas Angelich, who recently passed away, “[They] were the kind of performers I love: no showing off, no pretense at emotion they don’t feel, just a pure immersion in the music.”
Osborne knows when he has succeeded at expressing this meaning by the atmosphere in the concert hall after the final few notes of a performance: “I think you can generally tell when this happens because the audience goes quiet—there’s a quality of communication which is somehow magnetic.”
“As a performer, you can’t be sure this kind of communion will happen, but each time there is that palpable feeling of sharing the music together. It’s always like a moment of grace—a deep privilege.”
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With the world in constant political turmoil, many of us are dealing with uncomfortable emotions. Perhaps we seek solace in music. However, music might also represent a lack of peace and make us feel a greater divide in the world, and listening to that dissonance brings us a sense of catharsis. I asked what made Rachmaninoff particularly relevant today, and Osborne responded:
“It’s a pointed question at the moment, given Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. By playing Russian music, are we tacitly supporting this heinous venture? How far should cultural boycotts go? I find these immensely complicated and difficult questions to which I have no clear answer. Shortly after the invasion began, I had the instinct to play, with Alban Gerhardt, Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise as an encore—I felt that the piece expressed something about the desperate pain of the current situation.”
Rachmaninoff’s life was turbulent, to say the least. He suffered from severe bouts of depression, and he fled his home country while political tensions were on the rise in Soviet Russia. Because of this, he was a composer who learned to be vulnerable with his work. He knew how to feel deeply—to reach deep areas of emotion like despair, resignation, and regret.
When Rachmaninoff was just 24 years old, he premiered his first symphony in Moscow. It was a disaster: The conductor was allegedly drunk (and incompetent), the reviewers were out for blood, and Rachmaninoff was a bit too ahead of his time. He spent three years in a severe depression that required intense treatment and support. At the end of it all, he was able to compose and perform his second piano concerto—a perennial favorite among classical music lovers.
“I think those beautiful tunes strike such a strong chord with listeners because they’re not just beautiful, they’re also often tinged with those darker emotions that we’d rather we didn’t have to deal with, and it is a relief to hear someone else express them for us.” Osborne continued, “and yet, there is a great deal of love and even joy and enthusiasm in the music too. It’s an extraordinary and potent mix which touches on the very essence of what it is to be human.”
Although the world is dealing with complicated questions, unclear answers, and uncertain futures, one thing is certain: One of the best places to deal with dark emotions, grief, and anxiety is through music.
I want to express my deepest gratitude to Steven Osborne and Utah Symphony | Utah Opera for giving me the rights to this piece to publish on Substack. If you enjoyed this interview, please let me know in the comments and consider becoming a paid subscriber.