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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Concert Review: The Man With Three Countries

Stéphane Denève brings Prokofiev back to the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"If you want them to take you seriously you've got to have serious hair." Stéphane Denève.
Photo from the Royal Scottish Opera by Chris Christodoulou.
Sergei Prokofiev gets a bad rap.

Oh sure, he's a major composer of the 20th century, a fearless innovator whose music pushed boundaries in the areas of piano, orchestral work, opera and ballet. And yet there is something of the sidelong glance, something of the raised eyebrow among music elitists that keeps his huge catalogue from being programmed regularly outside of Russia. Sure, the works are technically difficult, but this writer would postulate that said programmers are never quite sure if the composer was being serious or was secretly laughing at his audience.

Last week, Stéphane Denève and the New York Philharmonic set out to correct this oversight with a bold and far-reaching program of three major works from Prokofiev's pen. Each work was from a very different era in his life and each was commissioned for performance in three different countries. All showed different faces of this fascinating and endlessly inventive musician, and each were met with enthusiasm on Saturday night at David Geffen Hall.

The concert started with the composer's Suite from his 1921 opera The Love for Three Oranges, written for the short-lived Chicago Opera Association in that great Illinois city. Oranges, which used to appear regularly at the New York City Opera, is an opera ripe for rediscovery, a sardonic comedy in which a young prince is charged with rescuing three particularly large examples of citrus fruit. (Before you think something kinky is going on, each fruit contains a princess.) Mr. Denève offered the orchestral excerpts that the composer created after the Chicago premiere was delayed; it offers five examples from the bold and raucous score.

Under the French conductor's meticulous direction, the Philharmonic dove gleefully into the opening Vivo, which sets up the play within a play that is Prokofiev's format. The card game between the witch Fata Morgana and the wizard Tchelio followed, with the woodwinds supplying suitably diabolical accompaniment. Then the whole band swung into the March that is this opera's best known tune. The last two sections depicted the scene in the desert where the Prince discovers the true nature of his cargo and the opera's tumultuous climax.

Next, conductor and orchestra were joined by the violinist James Ehnes, a stellar artist who also leads his own quartet. Mr. Ehnes offered the First Violin Concerto,  planned for a Paris premiere upon Prokofiev's flight from the Bolsheviks. Here, the composer deploys small, almost neoclassical forces but uses them with an easy virtuosity that stretches the soloist and his accompanists to the limit. Over plucked short notes on the harp and metronome-like playing from the strings, Mr. Ehnes soared into the three movements, riding the roller-coaster of notes and tempo shifts through this brilliant and tricky concerto.

The fast themes of the first movement were reworked to thrilling effect for the second. There was no rest for the violinist here as he steered nimbly through a minefield of difficult, dense writing. The final movement was alight with energy and joy, bringing a serene, Wagnerian lake of glowing tone interrupted by "skipping rocks" thrown by violin, clarinet and flute. Mr. Ehnes then announced it was his birthday and celebrated with a movement from Bach's second violin sonata, an all-too-welcome self-indulgence.

The second half featured Mr. Denève's arrangement of ten excerpts from the ballet Romeo and Juliet, a work that cemented Prokofiev's reputation with his Soviet masters in the years before World War II. Drawing from three different suites, Mr. Denève carved an apt narrative arc, condensing the plot of the play and creating a thrilling contrast between the jolting Montagues and Capulets music, the romantic balcony scene and the Death of Tybalt, fight music that serves as a predecessor to Bernstein's West Side Story. 

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