Friday, October 19, 2007
Arise, People of Russia
This week's program at the San Francisco Symphony consists of three bombastic pieces of music, and if you like that sort of thing (and I do), it's outrageously fun.
First on the program is Liszt's "Totentanz," a demented set of variations for piano and orchestra on the "Dies Irae" theme that was played hell-for-leather by the Quebequois pianist Louis Lortie (above right).
Lortie returned for Beethoven's 1808 Choral Fantasy, which starts off as a piano and orchestra exercise that is strange enough it could be mistaken for early Liszt, which then morphs into a chorus-and-soloists ode to the power of music that sounds like a warmup for the finale of the 9th Symphony.
The conductor was the 80-year-old Kurt Masur, who used to be the music director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1990s and is now the Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I'd only heard him conduct once before in a wretched traversal of Britten's "War Requiem," which I walked out on midway, but he was in better form for last night's program.
The second half was Prokofiev's great movie cantata, "Alexander Nevsky," with its monster chorus and patriotic evocation of Mother Russia defending itself back in the 13th century from invading Germans. The 1939 Eisenstein movie was made as a propaganda piece to warn Germany not to attack yet again, and Prokofiev fashioned the concert piece out of his movie score later that year.
In 1988 at Davies Hall, there was an almost definitive performance of "Alexander Nevsky" under the baton of Libor Pesek (bring him back, please!) with the legendary Polish contralto Ewa Podles, and though Masur and mezzo Nancy Maultsby weren't in the same league, the performance was still completely thrilling. There are further performances Friday and Saturday night, and a matinee Sunday afternoon. This is some of the best music Prokofiev ever wrote, and hearing it live is a treat not to be missed.