Monday, November 02, 2015
A Musical Week 4: SF Symphony Plays Prokofiev and Bartok
The San Francisco Symphony played Prokofiev's popular Lieutenant Kije Suite last week under the debuting Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko (bottom photo in this post), who looked like a matinee idol direct from Central Casting. His music making was pretty good, too, especially in the 20-minute Prokofiev suite fashioned from an early Soviet film score, which you have probably heard whether you know it or not, since the tunes have been reused in countless advertisements and as the score for the 1957 Alec Guinness film, The Horse's Mouth.
The original 1934 movie is an absurdist satire on the late 18th century Russian Emperor Paul I, who adored Prussian militarism and drove everyone insane during a six-year reign until he was assassinated by his own military officers in 1801. Through a series of spelling errors, a non-existent Lieutenant Kije is mistakenly created by the military bureaucracy. This invisible lieutenant is then offered as a scapegoat for waking the emperor from a sound sleep, publicly flogged with 100 lashes, sent to Siberia, rehabilitated and promoted to general, married off to a Princess, and finally put into a coffin, all without assuming corporal form. You can see the subtitled movie on YouTube, and it's fascinating to hear how the Prokofiev music is used before it was refashioned, particularly the famous troika which turns out to be a Russian drinking song about the heart of a woman being like a roadside inn, with traffic coming and going at all hours of the day and night.
The great violinist Gidon Kremer, above left, then joined the orchestra for an obscure 1908 Bartok violin concerto that he wrote while infatuated with a young violinist named Stefi Geyer. She stopped all communication with Bela after he wrote her a long cri de coeur about his personal philosophy of atheism. Bartok still sent the concerto on to Geyer and the score sat in a drawer unperformed until 1958, a year after Stefi's death. It's a thorny piece, almost a violin sonata with occasional orchestral accompaniment through the first half of the slow opening movement, which was marred by a Thursday evening Davies Hall crowd that often sounded like a tuberculosis ward. Still, I'm glad to have heard it, especially in a performance as persuasive as Kremer's.