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Rachmaninoff's Apartment

The maestro's unexpected encore

by Jack Neely

He's there today on the second floor of a large, century-old brick building on Gay Street. By the light of an eastern window, he spends his days staring down at polished hardwood floors. He's a striking figure in a white tuxedo and bow tie, owing in part to the fact that he is very, very tall. If he were to stand up perfectly straight, in fact, he would be nearly 11 feet tall. But as he stands, his head declines forward, as if in sadness—or, perhaps, humility, accepting the ovation of an audience. Sometimes during the day, a cat will run past his huge, white shoes, but he himself never moves at all.

His name is Sergei, and he's made of white plaster. He's an enormous statue sculpted by the artist Victor Bokarev. For many years, Bokarev was a Soviet sculptor who molded great monuments to Soviet might and the triumph of the working man. Though he speaks no English, he has been in America for some years, mostly in the New York area, working on other projects.

Victor Bokarev took on this statue of the great Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff on his own. He insisted his statue should go to the American city where one of Russia's greatest composers gave his final concert.

The last time the tall man with the big hands was on Gay Street was in February, 1943. It should have been a happy time for him; just two weeks earlier—a quarter-century after they'd fled Bolshevik Russia—he'd finally gotten his American citizenship. But he was feeling under the weather; last week he'd gone to a doctor in Chicago about a bad cough and was assured it was nothing serious. Now his back was hurting.

Giving a polite interview to the local papers that Wednesday morning, he confessed being "very lazy and mischievous as a boy." That evening at UT's Alumni Gymnasium, before an appreciative crowd of over 3,000, some of whom had paid as much as $2.75 for tickets, Rachmaninoff played piano. Suffering severe pain, the 69-year-old performer might have canceled this date, and perhaps should have, but they say he felt obligated to Knoxville. Years before, he had canceled another scheduled performance here, and he felt badly about that. That night at Alumni Gym, on the southwest slope of the Hill, Rachmaninoff played some of his best-known etudes, but added a few by other composers. Among them was Chopin's Funeral March. Some observers noted he seemed weak; one backstage even worried he would fall off the piano bench. But all night, Rachmaninoff's only complaint was about the dust on the keys of the piano he shipped with him from city to city.

After the show, Rachmaninoff put on his homburg and overcoat and retired to his room at the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street. As he left Knoxville, he intended to resume his tour of the South, toward his new home in California—he was expecting his American citizenship to be approved any day. But in increasing pain, he canceled his show in New Orleans and a whole series of dates on the West Coast. He went on home to California and learned that his back pain was much more serious than he had thought, that it was spinal cancer. He spent his last weeks listening to radio reports about the Russian front.

More than half a century later, in New Jersey, Victor Bokarev was at work on a huge statue, tall as Rachmaninoff was tall, with huge hands befitting the pianist's two-octave stretch. In it he inscribed the maestro's name and the date of his final performance. Bokarev asked nothing for himself, but sculpted the piece on speculation that someone would at least cast it in bronze and mount it in a prominent place in Knoxville.

However, in 1996 someone in the mayor's office rejected the gift. Later, the Arts Council didn't know what to do with it, either. Meanwhile, New York reportedly wanted it. But the sculptor was adamant. The only place for his sculpture of Rachmaninoff was the city in Tennessee where he gave his last bow. He offered it to UT, where the concert was held. They turned him down, too.

Through a Russian intermediary in Oak Ridge, the sculptor's family got in touch with gallery owner Jo Mason, who had room for it, certain it would be only a matter of time before the city took an interest in having it cast in bronze, at a cost of perhaps $40,000, and mounted somewhere worthy. About a year ago, Bokarev's family brought it down, in a truck, and unloaded it at 124 South Gay Street, Mason's Gay Street townhouse with 16-foot ceilings, a rare place where a statue this size could be stored.

It has been there ever since. Mason is still leading an effort to finance bronzing and placing the statue, but she has moved out of Rachmaninoff's apartment to a larger gallery spot nearby in the old Rebori building. Meanwhile, about a month ago, maverick stockbroker Robert Loest moved into number 124. So far, he has gotten along well with the tall Russian.

The statue is realistic, but the crease in his trousers somehow reminds you of the sleek, art moderne stylings of Rachmaninoff's day. His left hand rests on a stylized two-octave piano. An inscription on the side includes some notes and Latin lyrics beginning Dies Irae—the day of wrath, part of a 13th century Italian poem and the lyrics of a Rachmaninoff composition the Soviets confiscated and suppressed for decades.

This past weekend brought good news: the city may, after all, be interested in making a place for Rachmaninoff. There's even talk of a commemorative concert and dedication this October.

Today, Rachmaninoff peers down at you with his grave face and something that, for him, is almost like a smile.