The Romantic era is one of my favorites, not only because so many new nations arose from so many tumbling kingdoms in such a short period of time, but also because everyone living and creating art while it was happening seems to have gone at least a little bit apeshit as a result. As a (very late) Romantic, Rachmaninoff was not unique in this case, though his three years of writer's block and crippling depression hardly rival the problems some of the other Romantics had (I'm looking at you, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Schumann.). Still, his story and his compositional output jibe nicely with the maniacal sturm und drang of the Romantic era--and also with more contemporary musings about artistry, celebrity, and the creative process. Our contemporary views about artistic greatness and fame derive, after all, from the Romantic era, and Preludes understands this very well. Its postmodern approach allows it to make a dizzying number of references both to the modern world and to worlds long gone; in keeping with the weirdly hypnotic feel of the piece, the present and past constantly fold into one another in ways that are alternately soothing and unsettling. As with the best postmodern pieces, you don't need to recognize every single layer of every single reference made throughout Preludes--I am not sure if anyone but the company actually could (and I suspect some rehearsals for this particular show were like some of the graduate seminars I remember with a curious mix of great fondness and creeping dread). But teasing out the many layers of meaning packed into its two hours is part of the pleasure of Preludes, and if this exercise sounds irritating or unpleasant to you, then seriously, stay home.
Preludes is, in its own weird and disjunct way, a show in which Characters Learn Something About Themselves and Others, though the path to such discovery is hardly standard. The back story: At age 24, after a positively extraordinary rise to rock-star status that began when he was 19, Rachmaninoff (moodily, ably played by both the actor Gabriel Ebert and the nimble pianist Or Matias) premiered his Symphony no. 1 in D minor, op. 13, at a concert in St Petersburg. The conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was totally off his game--maybe plastered, certainly unprepared--and the orchestra wasn't well rehearsed. The concert was viciously panned, most notably by the esteemed composer and critic Cesar Cui, and so Rachmaninoff suffered the three-year setback described above. His wife Natalya (Nikki M. James, a real standout) eventually sent him to the hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl (Eisa Davis, earthy and shrink-like in a somewhat one-dimensional role), with whom he worked toward recovery.
Preludes is less a direct retelling of the events leading to and following Rachmaninoff's breakdown than a fantastical interpretation of his hypnotherapy sessions, during which he meets other famous Russian artists (all played by the flinty and charming Chris Sarandon), hangs out with his opera-singing buddy Feodor Chaliapin (Joseph Keckler, terrific), struggles to regain his confidence, and reaffirms his love for his long-suffering Natalya. Throughout, he and Dahl discuss his creative process, his fears about his legacy, and his nagging concerns about having peaked artistically as a young man. It's challenging, somewhat talky stuff that is supplemented by notably beautiful and ever-shifting lighting (by Bradley King), and a sound design to rival all sound designs (by Matt Hubbs). The score, by Dave Malloy, is appropriately postmodern--call it neoromantic postminimalist, or something like that; each piece is rooted in music composed by Rachmaninoff (or, occasionally, Beethoven or Mussorgsky), but then boils itself down, morphing into something more repetitive and contemporary: techno, indi-folk, soul, alt-pop.
The moody, disjunct structure of Preludes certainly fits its topic, and while the show's disjointed dreaminess results in some parts that drag on too long, its pleasures, at least for me, outweighed its negatives. I understand at once why a few people walked out of the performance I attended, and also why the show has been rapturously received by some critics and extended past its original run. It's just that kind of show, which is just as well: as the small, touching conclusion of Preludes implies, Rachmaninoff was just that kind of composer, and anyway, universal adoration does not a fine artist with an admirable, hard-won output make.