Friday, March 04, 2016

Scott - Rachmaninoff

Why would I post a review of a biography (Scott, Rachmaninoff, 2011) of a prominent 20th century musician on a blog committed to advancing leadership understanding? First, because one of the issues about which I am most concerned today is how to foster creativity, innovation, and originality and second, because creativity and innovation requires the courage to lead.

Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) composed many of the pieces that music listeners most enjoy from the height of late Romanticism. Rachmaninoff’s family name is derived from an Old Russian word, ‘rachmany,’ meaning hospitable, generous, or spendthrift. Growing up outside of Novgorod, Russia, his father abandoned the family when Serge was 10. Already showing promise as a pianist, he was selected to receive the best of training under the guidance of Nicolai Zverev. Noted as extremely independent by his family (his nickname was ‘yasam,’ meaning ‘myself’), he had such perfect recall of music notation that his early teachers decided that he didn’t need to study music theory at all. Rachmaninoff’s great talent would result in some judging him to be lazy but the advocacy of a family member who was a talented musician himself resulted in young Serge studying at the Moscow Conservatory, a place where he would flourish.

Study at the Conservatory resulted in Serge emerging as one of the most talented young musicians in all of Russia, a judgment conferred by Tchaikovsky and other instructors who gave Serge the highest marks ever conferred on a protégé  after his final examinations. Having achieved very early success with the Prelude in C# minor, his Piano Concerto #1, and other compositions, Serge was to face a period of self-doubt and retreat after the failure of his Symphony #1 in 1896. However, hypnosis broke this unproductive period, bringing us one of Rachmaninoff’s most beloved works in 1901 – Piano Concerto #2 – or the ‘Rach 2’ as some refer to it.

Great fame and notoriety in Russia would lead to performances throughout Europe and, with the German invasion of Russia, Rachmaninoff established residence in cities such as Paris and Dresden. Eventually, the increased opportunity of performance in the U.S.A. and growth of Soviet military/political oppression would cause him to establish residence, and eventually seek citizenship, in the United States. Rachmaninoff pursued an aggressive concert schedule in the U.S.A. during the winter and in Europe for the summer throughout the rest of his career. He played his own piano works and select compositions of others under the batons of such great conductors as Mahler, Stock, Stokowski, Ormandy and others.

Rachmaninoff is a classic example of a person of great talent who struggled with ‘imposter syndrome,’ being periodically driven to isolation and despair by self-doubt. His early success probably made him more vulnerable than most, a result of oscillating back and forth between adoring audiences and caustic critics who would occasionally take him to task. Yet, Rachmaninoff stayed with a style of composing that in the end would result in his being recognized as one of the greatest musical talents of Romanticism and the early 20th century. He stuck to his conviction in his music and he gave himself to others in performances that were often noted as ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. Rachmaninoff acted out of conviction, authenticity, and he became more resilient over time as he realized that acting on his conscience was essential to his artistic genius. These are the attributes that I suspect are central to fostering creativity and innovation in leadership.

The name from which his is derived, ‘Rachmany,’ was prophetic of the way Rachmaninoff would live. He often raised money for his Russian artistic colleagues and performed in benefits to aid Russia during both WWI and WWII. He also spent the fortune he would acquire as the highest paid pianist of his age by purchasing multiple residences in Europe and the U.S.A. The most significant of his residences was the one he designed and built not far from Luzern, Switzerland. This estate, called Senar, would be a ‘little Russia,’ hosting exiled Russians such as Vladimir Horowitz who could no longer comfortably return to their homeland. Senar would provide a home and respite during summers away from concertizing and it would also allow Rachmaninoff to return to composing. Indeed, it brought us one of his most beautiful works, the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” The last thing Rachmaninoff would write before his death on March 28, 1943, was printed in the April 5 Musical Courier:
“I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me. I cannot cast out my musical gods in a moment and bend the knee to new ones. The new kind of music seems to me to come, not from the heart, but from the head.”

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Varty - Cathedral of the Wild

A new colleague recommended Boyd Varty’s Cathedral of the Wild after finding out that I read extensively and particularly enjoy books with a “journey to leadership” perspective. Varty’s book was so aligned with Deeper Learning in Leadership (Roberts, 2007) that it felt like an autobiography deliberately written to complement it. The essence of Deeper Learning in Leadership is all there – the struggle to find purpose in life, leadership as "conviction in action,” and sustaining oneself through presence, flow, and oscillation.

The story of the Varty family is fascinating. With two sons inheriting a large tract of land in the northeast planes of South Africa, the resolve of the family is tested as they try to make ends meet. Ultimately, they survived through many personal and business trials to raise resilient children as well as start a nature reserve movement that has now been adopted in many other areas of Africa. Of his parents as he was growing up, Boyd reflects, “To shelter us where we grew up would have been to fail to prepare us. They walked that line as best they could, and all too often they got it wrong. But in the end we survived all we ever faced, and we came out strong and largely unafraid of life, with the full knowledge of its dangers.” (pp. xiv-xv)

Most of the book is set at Londolozi (Zulu for “protector of all things”), a physical place that required restoration in the beginning and later became where Nelson Mandela would be renewed in spiritual retreat after his release from Robben Island. Of the staff that built and sustain Londolozi, Varty writes, “When men face danger together, they lose the frivolous definitions of the world and simply become people who must work in harmony in order to survive.” (p. 29) Mandela would write in the foreword for I Speak of Africa, “During my long walk to freedom, I had the rare privilege to visit Londolozi. There I saw people of all races living in harmony amidst the beauty that Mother Nature offers.” (p. 105)

Boyd Varty is still a young man who is discovering himself. It is uncanny how he reveals in the story of his family and Londolozi some of the deepest truths I know. The “cathedral” reflects a sacred place where physical and mental challenges are encountered and where unrecognized strengths emerge. At its core, a life worth living is one where “your destiny sings to you,” drawn from the Australian Aboriginal image of a place “where we can fetch the wisdom to guide our days and the medicine for healing.” (p. 167) Varty came to realize through his journey that “we heal stronger at the broken places, but… where the heart is concerned, we also heal more tenderly, more open to the miraculous.” (p. 270)

It is fortuitous that I will be traveling to South Africa in April 2016 and will have an opportunity to see some of what inspired Varty and his family as they sought to restore natural areas and bring the indigenous wildlife of Africa back into balance.