Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ivan The Terrific at San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony is performing an all-Russian program this weekend, starting Thursday and repeating Friday and Saturday evening. A few of us were invited to watch and discreetly take photos at a rehearsal of a newly discovered Sergei Prokofiev oratorio for chorus and two soloists, taken from music he composed for Eisenstein's three Ivan The Terrible films from the 1940s.

The concerts also mark the overdue debut of the 40-year-old Russian-German-Jewish Vladimir Jurowski above, who has been the Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director of the Glyndebourne Opera company for the last decade. As Jurowski explained to us at the end of the rehearsal, "During World War Two, the filmmaker Eisenstein wanted to kiss the ass of Stalin and his government, so he made a movie that idealized Ivan The Terrible as the great uniter of Russia. Eisenstein was an open homosexual and a singular, in-his-own-world artist, so Ivan Part Two ended up biting the same ass he was trying to kiss, showing the beginnings of the police state and Ivan's pathological paranoia which was the same problem that Stalin had. He just couldn't help himself. So the movie was banned until the late 1950s, and the third section was supposedly destroyed by bureaucrats who dipped the negatives in acid."

The composer Sergei Prokofiev left Russia during the Revolution by taking a train eastward across Siberia to the Pacific, and tried to make a career in the United States, which didn't work out. He moved on to Paris in the 1920s, where seemingly everybody interesting in the Western artistic world was living, but was convinced during the early 1930s by the musical bureaucrat Levon Atovmyan to return to Soviet Russia as a beloved homeland composer. Prokofiev did so, bringing along his wife and two sons, and the move was simultaneously liberating and confining in equal measure.

Though very few people have seen the films in the United States, the two Ivan The Terrible films are popular classics in Russia, filled with actors who are the remnants of legendary acting troupes dating from Stanislavsky and Meyerhold. In poor health and near the end of his life, which famously occurred on the same day as Stalin in 1953, Prokofiev tried to save and repurpose his movie music into an oratorio with his friend Atovmyan, rearranging the chronology to make musical rather than chronological sense.

Jurowski explained that for decades, the Ivan music was performed by orchestras in an arrangement by the original movie conductor, Abram Stasevich, in the 1960s that includes hokey narration. "This newly discovered version was created by Prokofiev with his assistant Atovmyan, and it has his fingerprints all over it," Jurowski explained, "but since the Stasevich was the standard performing version for years, Atovmyan simply put it away in a drawer. It was his daughter, who emigrated to Israel, who showed it to Nelly Kravitz in Tel Aviv. Kravitz brought it to me in London, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave the piece its premiere in January of this year."

Jurowski paused and looked at an old-fashioned television set that was playing a DVD of the Ivan The Terrible films, and said ruefully, "The music is wedded to the film, it's where it really belongs," but I objected, telling him that from the sound of the rehearsal, this was like hearing a brand new major composition by one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. "Prokofiev is still being discovered," Jurowski agreed. "There are a handful of his pieces that get played all the time, but there is so much wonderful music that nobody knows," and he listed off a series of obscure ballets and occasional pieces which he had performed recently during a Prokofiev festival in London.

It was fascinating listening to the conductor shape the music with orchestra and chorus all evening, and his sense of Prokofiev's rhythms is special. The concerts, which also include the young pianist Khatia Buniatishvili in the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto, should be one of the highlights of the year, if not the decade. Consider yourself alerted.

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