In her first trip to Wichita, Lise de la Salle is going to do something that few performers in the world have even dared.
The world-renowned French pianist will play all five of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, over the course of two concerts next weekend with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s definitely a huge challenge. I have a couple of pianist friends who have told me I am definitely out of my mind,” de la Salle said with a laugh from her home in Paris. “I know I am a little bit crazy, because I always go for projects that are on the very border of humankind.”
Symphony CEO Don Reinhold, himself a pianist, said it’s a feat that has rarely been attempted because of the intensity and the intricacy of the five pieces.
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“They’re the pinnacle of the piano concerto, in my opinion,” Reinhold said. “To be able to hear them all in a single weekend is such a rare event. Playing one Rachmaninoff concerto is kind of the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. But to climb Mount Everest five times in a weekend is pretty extraordinary.”
Because of the extra time needed for rehearsals, a change had to be made to the typical Wichita Symphony schedule. The first concert of the weekend will be on Friday rather than Saturday. The concert Friday night will include “Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini,” and Piano Concertos 2 and 4. After a day of rehearsal, the Piano Concertos 1 and 3 will be Sunday, Feb. 17.
A pianist who first gained acclaim for winning the European Young Concert Artist Auditions in 2003 and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York in 2004, de la Salle said she played the Second Concerto when she was 17. The “Paganini” followed, then the Rachmaninoff One.
The Third, and perhaps best known of the works, and what de la Salle called “the most challenging concerto ever written,” eluded her.
“I had promised myself I would never do it,” the 30-year-old said.
So when her manager floated the idea of doing the complete cycle of Rachmaninoff in concert, she bristled.
“When you say the ‘complete cycle,’ that means No. 3 is included, right?” she recalled. “It’s definitely one of the most challenging pieces ever, but it’s also such a great piece of music. It’s just fantastic.”
Reinhold said ending the concerts with the Third is the most fitting way to conclude.
“It makes more sense to end. It’s the most spectacular,” he said. “It’s the concerto pianists aspire to. It is full of virtuosic splendor and melodic beauty.”
While the Rachmaninoff Two and Three are performed frequently (guest artist Stewart Goodyear played the former last season), One and Four are rarely played, Reinhold said.
“(The First) was an early concerto that Rachmaninoff wrote when he was 18,” Reinhold said. “It has some of the qualities that you’ll hear in the later works, but it’s one that most pianists just don’t put into their repertoire.”
“Paganini” is not among the numbered works but is just as lengthy and intense as the rest, Reinhold said.
While planning the 2018-19 season, Reinhold said he mulled over the offer from de la Salle’s manager to perform the complete Rachmaninoff.
“They fling their bait out and see if anybody bites,” he said.
Reinhold has been following de la Salle’s career since the early 2000s.
“She is, I think, extraordinary,” he said. “I’ve kind of been following this career, waiting for an opportunity to present her.”
Wichita is the only symphony – “So far,” de la Salle adds – that has accepted the offer.
“They told me I should go there, even though I had no idea where it was,” she said. “They told me I should be able to have a good time there.”
Much of the reason other orchestras have been reluctant, she said, has to do with union rules about rehearsal time.
“It’s definitely challenging artistically speaking, but also challenging logistically,” she said.
“It’s also difficult for the orchestra,” Reinhold said, adding that extra time was taken with the symphony to rehearse the first night of the concert.
De la Salle said she’s up for challenges – she filled in for a guest pianist in Colombia with 48-hours’ notice a few years ago in a piece she hadn’t played in years, she bragged – but there’s also a physical toll with the Rachmaninoff works.
“When you play one in a concert, it’s exhausting. To play three in one evening is something intense,” she said. “I have to prepare like an athlete before competition. I have to be very careful with my sleep, with what I eat, and doing a lot of stretching afterward and working out.
“We have a lot of injuries, too,” she added. “I have the schedule, I know how many hours I have and how many days. It looks all very doable. It’s going to be a challenge for sure.”
Reinhold said it’s going to be an accomplishment that needs to be seen by anyone who has sat at a piano bench.
“Any pianist within 500 miles is going to want to make the drive into Wichita if they can,” he said. “Piano teachers, piano students, lovers of piano music. These concertos represent in many ways the pinnacle of the titanic piano techniques that were represented in the 20th century.”
Rachmaninoff: The Complete Piano Concertos, with Lise de la Salle and the Wichita Symphony
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15 (“Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and Concertos 2 and 4); and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17 (Concertos 1 and 3)
Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $75-$20, from wichitasymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office