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Review: A Tale of Two Cities

"The Beverly Hills Songbook," The Maybourne Beverly Hills, Feb. 2, 2023

Feb. 5, 2023 | By Bruce R. Feldman

In Brief: Sergei Rachmaninoff lived for a short time in Beverly Hills in the 1940s. The LA Phil’s outdoor homage to both the musical giant and the posh celebrity enclave of his era failed to explain the artistic connections between the classical and showbiz communities there, but it did provide a pleasant diversion on a very chilly winter night that even Irving Berlin might not have fully appreciated.

Rachmaninoff Was Here: The Golden Age of Beverly Hills Bohemianism

Rachmaninoff Was Here: The Golden Age of Beverly Hills Bohemianism is the LA Phil’s rubric for a series of off-site events that it is presenting to supplement its Rachmaninoff cycle underway at the Disney Concert Hall with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and pianist Yuja Wang.

The first of the three programs, The Beverly Hills Songbook, offered a panel discussion, a short selection of Rachmaninoff preludes and transcriptions ably performed by pianist Gavin Martin, and, finally, a whirlwind tour conducted by talented vocalist Zakiya Young and pianist Doug Peck of bits and pieces of the Great American Songbook, not all of which were composed in Beverly Hills or anywhere near it!

The justification for this somewhat hodge-podge program? Ostensibly, because Southern California, in general, and Beverly Hills, in particular, famously was a hotbed of artistic activity during the 1930s and the subsequent war years, thanks to the influx of established composers, writers, musicians, and actors who fled European repression.

Some, like dramatist Bertholt Brecht and composer Arnold Schoenberg, stumbled badly here. Others successfully made the transition to American movies. Directors Billy Wilder, Fred Zinneman, and Ernst Lubitsch, composers Ernst Korngold and Franz Waxman, actors Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, and Ingrid Bergman were among the many emigres who found acceptance and prosperity in Hollywood.

A lot of these transplants settled in Beverly Hills, home also to a raft of American entertainers and popular song composers – Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, to name just a few. On the weekends, they partied hard and long, as the panelists delighted in explaining.

(For more on the movie colony of the time, see Otto Friedrich’s seminal volume City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's.)

Sergei Rachmaninoff moved to Beverly Hills in 1941, a few years after composing two of his signature compositions, his magnificent third piano concerto and beloved Paganini rhapsody. He did no composing here and died the next year in 1942.

So what exactly was the significance of his association with Southern California? Not much, really. Yes, he was a superstar piano virtuoso who displayed equal measures of stunning precision and sweeping lyricism. He was a dynamic conductor, too, who had performed in Los Angeles many times during the 1920s and ‘30s. He enjoyed socializing with Horowitz, Stravinsky and others in the classical community at his home on Elm St.

Gershwin and Arlen lived a block or two away. But if you were expecting to learn about the intersection between Rachmaninoff’s circle and the hard living Hollywood set, you would have been disappointed.

Also a bit frustrating was the popular portion of the evening which consisted mostly of glossy snippets rather than considered interpretations of complete songs. And while Over the Rainbow could easily be connected to at least the time of Rachmaninoff’s West Coast sojourn, several songs – Cole Porter’s My Heart Belongs to Daddy and Anything Goes – had nothing at all to do with movies or the same 1941-42 period. They were composed a good ten years earlier for New York stage shows.

Porter did write for the movies. His hits You’d Be So Easy to Love and I’ve Got You Under My Skin, both from Born to Dance in 1936 with Eleanor Powell, or In the Still of the Night, from Rosalie in 1937, or You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To from Something to Shout About in 1943 might have been more appropriate choices.

In addition to Over the Rainbow, Harold Arlen was represented by Stormy Weather, written in 1933 for the Cotton Club in Harlem. His hits One for My Baby and My Shining Hour, introduced in the 1943 film The Sky’s the Limit with Fred Astaire and Joan Leslie, would have been more characteristic of the evening’s theme.

Still, the program was enjoyable enough, even if the sun wasn’t shining on The Maybourne terrace and there wasn’t an orange grove to be found nowadays within many miles of Beverly Hills.

“Rachmaninoff Was Here: The Golden Age of Beverly Hills Bohemianism,” Los Angeles Philharmonic, (323) 850-2000,


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