Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Pallid Prokofiev Piano Festival

After their nine month season is finished at the end of May, the San Francisco Symphony puts on an annual "festival" around a different theme each year during the month of June.

The best and most exciting festival was one of the first in Michael Tilson Thomas' tenure, called "American Mavericks," that started with an audience participation version of Terry Riley's "In C" and included huge chunks of wild American music that is rarely heard in American concert halls.

This year the two-week festival was called "Russian Firebrand, Russian Virtuoso: The Music of Prokofiev" that included all five piano concertos being played by four different Russian/Ukranian pianists. The announcement of this weirdly titled series appeared rather late in the season, and had the feeling of a thrown-together-at-the-last-minute affair that was being marketed to the huge new wave of Russian Jewish immigrants who have moved to San Francisco in the last decade.

It's not as if the Prokofiev piano concertos are exactly rare at regular symphony concerts, so I was hoping for some obscure pieces to accompany them, but for the most it was the same old chestnuts like "Lt. Kije" and "Romeo and Juliet" and "Cinderella" ballet music. This was a real shame since a lot of Prokofiev is still being discovered. His absolutely brilliant opera from the 1930s, "The Fiery Angel," wasn't performed in Russia until the late 1980s, for instance, in a wonderful production that traveled to the San Francisco Opera in the early 1990s with a young Gergiev conducting. This brings me to the real problem I had with the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon performances I heard this weekend, which is that Tilson Thomas' conducting of Prokofiev's music sucked. The composer, particularly in his early work, is sardonic and rhythmic in about equal measure and I figured this would be right up Tilson Thomas' alley, but it wasn't, and his rhythms in both concerts were slightly flaccid and schmaltzy when they should have been driven and witty.

The best parts of both concerts were the solo recitals by the pianists in "pre-concerts" held an hour before the main event. Mikhail Rudy played a lovely selection from the early "Visions Fugitives" by Prokofiev and followed it with one of the most hilariously vulgar piano pieces I've heard in my life, a transcription of scenes from Stravinsky's ballet "Petrushka" that was written by Stravinsky for Arthur Rubenstein along with a few additional movements written by the pianist Rudy himself.

The next afternoon's concert had the young Ilya Yakushev playing "The Corelli Variations" by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev's short Piano Sonata No. 3, and he was sensationally good. It even made up for all his missed notes in the previous evening's mediocre rendition of Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto, which is one of my favorite pieces of music in the entire world, with its unbridled 19-year-old's funny and sexy energy. (I'm not alone. Charles Amirkhanian, the Other Minds Festival Music Director -- click here -- came bounding out of the hall going, "Isn't that music just the greatest?") Yakushev then started the main concert with Prokofiev's final Piano Sonata No. 7 and continued with a fine rendition of the Piano Concerto No. 4 for Left Hand.

The second half was devoted to a choral piece from 1917 called "Seven, They are Seven" which runs for, yes, seven minutes and sounds like a warm-up for the fabulous, insane and demonic finale to his opera "The Fiery Angel." However, instead of actually performing something interesting like the final act of "The Fiery Angel" with its chorus of nuns going insane in staccatto High C's punctuated by a Bass Grand Inquisitor and an orchestra gone completely mad, Tilson Thomas and the Symphony played "The Scythian Suite," which couldn't have been more boring. The fact that MTT openly expressed his contempt for the music in remarks to the audience before the second half just made it worse. Plus, watching a huge chorus sitting in the back of the orchestra going unused except for seven minutes during the entire afternoon seemed like a really stupid waste of resources.

So here's a note to the symphony management. If you're going to have a "festival," please try to make it something out of the ordinary. This was just dull, and Prokofiev is anything but.

Besides the piano recitals, the highlight of the weekend was finally running into Patrick Vaz who writes the culture blog "The Reverberate Hills" (click here). And for your Culture Vulture Tip of The Moment, the real classical music excitement this June has been at the opera house rather than the symphony. I saw "Iphigenie en Tauride" for the second time Tuesday evening, and it was even better than the week before. There is only one more performance, this Friday at 8PM, and if you want to keep your Bay Area cultural connoisseur credentials, you better see it before the run is over. And if you don't believe me, go over to The Standing Room, and M.C- will tell you the same thing (click here).


pjwv said...

Hey Mike, For what it's worth I'm seconding you and M. C- on Iphigenie.
Very nice to meet you at last (Billy Budd T-shirts -- bringing bloggers together!) and congratulations on being one of the few ever to take a picture of me in which I don't look like Quasimodo after a bender. Though be prepared not to recognize me next time since about half the time at concerts I'm wearing my glasses instead of contacts and I'm about to cut all my hair off since it's driving me crazy.
I enjoyed the Prokofiev more than you did, but I only went to the one concert. And I agree completely about the weird slapdash nature of the "festival" and MTT's dismissive remarks about the Scythian Suite -- I shudder every time he turns around on the podium with a microphone.

cedichou said...

What did MTT say? Now you got me curious!

pjwv said...

Mike can implement or correct this if he wants, but . . . MTT first explained to us that The Rite of Spring was a watershed musical event that caused many other composers to try to write very loud, "primitive" pieces, and the Scythian Suite was one of these attempts, and -- this was the part that really got me -- if it made us think of Maria Montez as the Jungle Queen that was fine and we should all just enjoy the tremendously fun loud noise. My feeling is that if I think of Maria Montez or whatever during a piece that's my web of association, but when the conductor mentions it to the audience in those cozy tones beforehand, the comment frames the piece in a certain way. I thought it was very condescending -- listen to the B-movie track this imitative hack produced!

sfmike said...

Patrick explained "the explanation" perfectly.