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.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Did Lortie play the house Steinway? He gave a concert in NYC a few years back where he used a Fazoli. I heard Garrick Ohlsson's "Emperor" concerto on a Fazoli and hated it.

sfmike said...

Dear Lisa: No idea about the kind of piano, but it certainly was loud and resonant, whatever it was.

Joshua Kosman said...

Definitely not the Fazioli, as evidenced by the general lack of nausea and ear pain. So far, the only Faziolite in Davies has been Ohlsson; hopefully he too will give it up sooner rather than later.

pjwv said...

I was there tonight, so your intrepid boy reporter checked it out -- he played the house Steinway.

sfmike said...

Dear Patrick: Thank you so much for the investigative journalism.

sfwillie said...

The actor who plays Nevsky in the movie is a real knockout!

Lisa at Fragile Industries Studios said...

In 1990 or thereabouts, the SF Symphony put on a screening of the original Nevsky film with the full-orchestra Prokofiev accompaniment. Unbelievably stirring, definitely propaganda, unfortunately not effective in 1939 to warn the Germans.

Intrusive personal note: After 3 weeks, I'm on lesson #5 of my DVD "Learn Russian" program. It ain't French or Spanish. At the end of the daily half hour (I have to reapeat each lesson about 3 or so times to get the hang of it) the entire bottom of my face, including lips and tongue, are sore from wrapping themselves around sounds not heard in Western Europe. I look like a total spazz squeezing out the noises. Gorgeous language, but not for the faint of heart -- or weak of facial musculature. I won't even try the alphabet yet.