Philadelphia Orchestra with Martha Argerich
Performing Arts Center, Aug. 14
Pianist Martha Argerich finished a threesome of SPAC appearances
last week with her signature piece: Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto
No. 3, a stirring, difficult work that she plays with
Or so it seems. I arrived shortly after 6 PM to picnic on
the lawn, and was able to watch Argerich, alone on the amphitheater
stage, warming up by practicing some of the concerto’s fiendish
passages at a fraction of her performance speed, watched by
a few other early-arrivals. Roger Kahn wrote of interviewing
a man who witnessed violinist Jascha Heifetz practicing the
Beethoven concerto before a concert, a work which at that
point Heifetz had performed hundreds of times. Yet he was
slowly going over the Rondo, a testament to amazing discipline.
And here was Argerich, revisiting very familiar phrases; stopping,
going back over a brutal sequence of chords, from time to
time enhancing them with some unexpectedly jazzy filigree.
By the time Charles Dutoit gave the downbeat for the program’s
opener, Rossini’s La Cenerentola overture, the lawn
was comfortably occupied and the house nowhere near filled,
as one of the summer’s—one of the year’s—most memorable events
got underway. The overture did what it’s supposed to do: ease
us into lively tunes with lots of twittering woodwinds; finish
big; keep it under 10 minutes. With playing of a caliber this
high, you can’t go wrong.
Then the piece I suspect most of the audience came to see:
the Prokofiev concerto. Written during a 10-year period when
the composer wandered the world, it wraps his highly lyrical
voice in episodes of great drama.
Argerich and Dutoit recorded this concerto with the Montreal
Symphony, but Thursday’s Saratoga performance was better paced
and more dynamic. The paradox of the piece is that it’s relentlessly
crunchy and yet possessed of incredibly infectious lyricism.
The paradox of Argerich is that she makes her virtuosity seem
so transparent that the lyricism is what you best remember
of her playing.
The orchestra’s SPAC programming leans toward the programmatic,
no doubt looking for a hook for a nervous audience. Thus The
Pines of Rome, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The
Planets—and, last Thursday, Richard Strauss’ (in two senses)
over-the-top An Alpine Symphony. It musically recalls
his teenage journey up and over—and, for a while, lost in—the
Scored for a massive orchestra, with wind machine and thunder
sheet, it’s trademark Strauss: lush, bombastic, skillfully
constructed to offer the listener a satisfying journey. And
amusing to fans of violin music, because the composer aped
a passage from Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (and reportedly
was unselfconscious about it, saying, “It’s beautiful! Why
shouldn’t I use it?”).
This was a regular-season work for the Philadelphians, and
their playing, always high-caliber, seemed to settle into
an all-the-more-exciting groove because of the added familiarity.
There’s a fusty classical-music game in which the know-it-alls
praise this or that section of this or that orchestra, but
a performance like this, in which each section, each player
shone through magnificently, makes that kind of sophistry
useless. Dutoit and the gang have a terrific rapport; the
park is a lovely venue. So why wasn’t the house sold out?
Prokofiev and His World
Festival Soloists, American Symphony Orchestra, Bard College,
Aug. 9 and 16
During the course of Sergei Eisenstein’s agitprop movie Alexander
Nevsky, 13th-century Russian troops battle their German
enemies in impressive scenes of carnage cut to a rousing Prokofiev
score. It was disturbing to emerge from a showing of this
movie two Saturdays ago to discover that the Russians had
just invaded Georgia.
Twenty-eight years ago, when I selected and announced classical
music at a local radio station, Russia ramped up its occupation
of Afghanistan. The U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics; locally,
calls and letters came to the radio station protesting the
broadcast of music by Russian composers. Airing Prokofiev’s
Piano Sonata No. 7 to the Capital Region would have
done—what? Encourage the Soviet army to push on into Pakistan?
The stupidity never ends. The music transcends it.
After exploring a career in the United States, France and
Germany, Sergei Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union in
1935. He slipped away in 1918 in the wake of the Revolution;
he returned just in time to fall victim to Stalin’s new, oppressive
policies towards artists.
Although composers like Strauss and Wagner have enjoyed a
philosophical rejuvenation despite their Nazi party associations,
Prokofiev never seems to have fully come out from behind the
cloud of suspicion that he willfully altered his composing
style to satisfy Soviet demands.
Politics was never very far from the lectures and panel discussions
that framed the Bard Summerscape’s Prokofiev festival during
the last two weekends, but one conclusion sat firmly in place:
None of the composer’s music need be discounted for political
reasons. Like so many composers who suffered under Stalin-esque
strictures, Prokofiev layered his music with a complexity
that spoke to fellow sufferers even as it eased past the scrutiny
music of Prokofiev spoke to the Russian people during the
Stalin era,” said American Symphony Orchestra music director
(and Bard College president) Leon Botstein, introducing one
evening’s program. “Music was the only form that Soviet artists
had in which they could protest the regime.”
His comments reinforced those of University of Cambridge professor
Marina Frolova-Walker, whose engaging half-hour lecture placed
works by Prokofiev and his good friend Nikolai Myaskovsky
in political contexts, noting that Myaskovsky artfully side-stepped
the suggestion that he attach a program to his next symphony
and set lyrics from an approved text. Instead, he encouraged
rumor-mongering about the supposed program, at once exciting
more interest in the piece and keeping it free of anything
A Summerscape festival is a full-to- bursting pair of adjacent
weekends offering lectures, panel discussions, movies and
concerts. What sounds brutally academic turned out to be fabulously
enlightening, with top scholars weighing in formally and informally
throughout the days. Events during the two Saturdays I attended
ran from 10 AM to 10:30 PM—a full schedule if you audit everything,
but a satisfying one.
The first Saturday kicked off with an overview of the composer’s
life. David Nice, author of an engaging biography that takes
Prokofiev through 1935 (part two is forthcoming), gave us
the early years, looking especially at the evolution of the
pieces into the more mature works. Harlow Robinson’s 1987
Prokofiev biography was one of the first to give a sane political
context to the music, and Robinson followed the composer into
the U.S. and Europe during the 1920s and early ’30s as part
of a flood of creative émigrés. Frolova-Walker took the story
from there, through the thorny Stalin years.
Despite the academic setting and an audience crowded with
academics, this was anything but dry. Fashionable though it
may be to disparage all things intellectual, to immerse yourself
in this kind of experience erases any pejorative connotations
of the term “scholarly.”
Chamber music was the afternoon fare, orchestral music sounded
in the evening, each concert programmed to reflect not only
a different aspect of Prokofiev’s life and work but also a
broader musical context. Thus, the chamber concert titled
Teachers and Influence included works by Tcherepnin (a charming
set of quartets for French horns, played by ASO members),
Glière, Taneyev and Medtner. Jeremy Denk then gorgeously performed
Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitive, a moody set of 20 brief
piano pieces. For the finish, Glazunov’s String Quintet
in A Major, itself sounding at times like the offspring
of a Tchaikovsky-Debussy romance.
The Return to the U.S.S.R. was the theme of the second Saturday’s
chamber program, where Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.
3 stole the show—there’s no topping its plaintive energy.
Flautist Randolph Bowman and pianist Frederic Chiu opened
with Prokofiev’s lilting Flute Sonata, as polished
a performance as I’ve heard, complete with outdoor thunder
and rain to add to the mood. Prokofiev’s not-very-pleasant
String Quartet No. 2 closed the program.
Filmmaker Yosif Feyginberg was on hand to premiere his hourlong
documentary Prokofiev: The Unfinished Diary, an excellent
portrait of the recently translated documents. Too bad the
projectionist couldn’t get the aspect ratio correct.
The Aug. 9 evening event was the post-Georgian invasion concert,
in which Prokofiev’s clangorous Symphony No. 3 sounded
all the more heartbreaking and demonic. Lyadov’s dreamy The
Enchanted Lake, which preceded the symphony, lulled us
into a more peaceful place, but the concert’s first half already
had given us Scriabin’s fiery Poem of Ecstasy and Blair
McMillen’s animated interpretation of Prokofiev’s Piano
Concerto No. 1.
As conductor Botstein pointed out during the second Saturday
concert, you rarely hear one Myaskovsky symphony in performance,
let alone two. His Symphony No. 16, like Prokofiev’s
Summer Night Suite, which preceded it in the first
half, is a model of what satisfied Stalin’s censors even as
it trembled with tension underneath. By contrast, Myaskovsky’s
Symphony No. 13 is flat-out strange, a dangerously
introverted work for 1933, beautiful in its remoteness.
One of Prokofiev’s last compositions was the Symphony-Concerto
for Cello and Orchestra, a much-revised piece written
for and with Rostropovich. It’s a bitch to play well, and
thus is rarely heard in concert. Soloist Gavriel Lipkind had
a few missteps, but only a few, and otherwise played it with
the passion and virtuosity it deserves. The American Symphony
also was in top form throughout these events.
It’s reassuring to note that when an event like this is programmed
out of passion, not a received need to please “the audience,”
you can sell out house after house.