Monday, January 29, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Prokofiev

On Friday afternoon I walked down to Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall to attend the first New York Philharmonic performance I'd heard in several years.  Led by Stéphane Denève, chief conductor of the Brussels Philhamonic, the matinee featured an all-Prokofiev program.

The concert opened with the six-movement suite from Prokofiev's 1919 opera The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33.  The opera itself is one of the composer's most fascinating works; in its bizarre plot - Prokofiev had also authored the libretto - he could even be said to have anticipated surrealism.  I actually saw a production of the full opera at the City Opera in the 1980's and greatly enjoyed the silliness of it all.  Much of the absurdity is lost, of course, in the reduction to a concert suite (completed in 1924 as Op. 33bis); and the passage of time, almost a century now, has robbed even the music of much of its shock value, not least after the March was used as the theme of a popular radio series in the 1940's.  Nevertheless, this is one of Prokofiev's early masterpieces and provides insight into his early approach to modernism, radically different from that of his countryman Stravinsky at a time when both were living as expatriates.

The next work was the Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19 with guest artist James Ehnes as soloist.  The contrast between Prokofiev's music and Stravinsky's was made even more evident in 1923 when the Concerto was premiered at the same Paris Opera concert at which Stravinsky conducted his Octet for winds, a piece I had heard earlier this month at a ChamberFest recital.  If the sleek coldness of Stravinsky's Octet received all the attention at that concert, Prokofiev's work was no less innovative.  One influence on its composition was Szymanowski's Métopes; Prokofiev had heard in 1916 in St. Petersbug at a performance of the work by violinist Paul Kochanski who then advised Prokofiev on the technical aspects of his own Concerto.  The connections to Métopes was interesting as I had just heard a selection from Szymanowski's Masques earlier in the week.

After intermission, the program concluded with selections from Prokofiev's 1940 ballet Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64.  It's well known that the composer had originally planned to give the piece a happy ending in which Romeo arrived at Juliet's side before she had had time to drink the poison.  Prokofiev justified his new ending by stating "the living can dance, the dying cannot"; the decision may also have reflected his newfound Christian Science beliefs that did not recognize the finality of death.  It's only been in the last few years, though, that it's been revealed Prokofiev was given no real choice in reverting to the original tragic ending.  He had come back to the Soviet Union in 1936 at precisely the wrong time, arriving immediately before Stalin's horrendous purges began in earnest.  The composer's ballet in its original form fell victim when the entire staff of the Bolshoi Theater, where the work was to have been premiered, were removed and its general director Vladimir Mutnykh, who had approved the work in its original form, was liquidated.  It was not unitl 1946 that Stalin allowed the revised version with tragic ending to finally go forward at the Bolshoi.  Simon Morrison, a Princeton music professor writing a book on Prokofiev, uncovered in his researches some twenty minutes of previously unheard music as well as six new dances that were given their premiere by the Mark Morris dance troupe at Bard Summerscape in 2008.  Morrison wrote:
"The version thats known and loved around the world is completely incorrect.  There's an act missing.  There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev's wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will."
It's rather strange to think that the officially sanctioned version, which has since become a staple of the dance repertoire, failed to accurately the composer's true intentions.  It's even been suggested that the principal dancer Galina Ulanova, who later wrote a warm reminiscence of the company's interraction with Prokofiev (reprinted in the Philharmonic's program notes), actually insisted on further changes to the composer's modernist music, including a thickening of the orchestration, in order to make it easier for her to dance.  At this performance, conductor Denève, having expressed dissatisfaction with Prokofiev's three orchestral suites, chose to make his own selection of music from the full score.

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