"We at the Mariinsky Theatre feel immensely enriched by the music of Prokofiev," says Valery Gergiev when asked about his relationship with the composer's work. In Russian Dreams: The Music of Sergei Prokofiev, the maestro brings the composer's works to Lincoln Center's Great Performers series in two generous portions this season. November features three concerts with ballet and film scores plus the opera, The Love for Three Oranges (1919) in concert version: a brilliant example of Prokofiev's sharp irreverent humor, inventiveness, and youthful energy: all performed by the Kirov Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre. In March, Gergiev returns for four concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra, offering all seven symphonies (including both versions of the rarely heard Fourth), both violin concertos, and the Second and Fourth Piano Concertos with Vadim Repin, Vladimir Feltsman and Alexei Volodin as soloists. The unprecedented retrospective will be supplemented in May by the New York City premiere of choreographer Mark Morris' new production of Romeo and Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare.
Indeed, in the past two decades no one has done more for Prokofiev's legacy than Gergiev, whose first conducting assignment at the Mariinsky in 1976: then known as Kirov: was Prokofiev's opera War and Peace. When the maestro became the Mariinsky's artistic director in 1988, he started his tenure with the idea of a Prokofiev festival. "Since then I never stayed away from his music for long," says Gergiev. "Now we can proudly call our theater The House of Prokofiev."
The Mariinsky staged all of Prokofiev's operas and ballets (some of them for the first time in many decades), performing them hundreds of times at home and abroad and recording them on CDs and DVDs. New York in particular remembers the company's Fiery Angel, Betrothal in a Monastery and Semyon Kotko as well as the Metropolitan Opera's War and Peace and The Gambler, led by Gergiev with mostly Mariinsky casts. The symphonies, suites, concertos, film scores, and cantatas also became part of the Mariinsky's and Gergiev's repertoire. No wonder that the company feels perfectly at home with Prokofiev's idiom, possessing a deep, almost intuitive understanding of his scores. Due to Gergiev's efforts, which included monumental Prokofiev festivals with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 2003 and with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2004, appreciation for Prokofiev has continued to grow among performers and listeners.
What drives Gergiev's intense advocacy? Is it just a part of his ongoing mission to restore and promote the true cultural history of Russia? To put all the music of Russia's great composers on the map, including works that have been neglected or underappreciated both in Russia during Soviet years and in the West?
Pianist Alexander Toradze, Gergiev's frequent collaborator, believes: "Valery's great affinity and dedication to Prokofiev's music comes from, well, Prokofiev's music itself, its rich and always original harmonic juxtapositions; its unusual, even awkward melodic lines; and 'colossal' (to use Prokofiev's own term) rhythmic drive."
It is no less important that both Prokofiev and Gergiev are men of great imagination, educated and inspired by the theater.
Theater was Prokofiev's undying love since childhood. As little Seriozha, living in a remote Sosnovka estate, he wrote dramas and staged his first opera, The Giant, based on his own libretto, at the age of eight. He wrote libretti for all eight of his major operas: from the playful Maddalena (1915) and his early operatic masterpiece The Gambler (1916), to The Story of a Real Man (1947-48): often skillfully "dramatizing" well-known prose of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or the Soviet writers Kataev and Polevoy. He would breathe new life into the stories with his rhythmically inventive orchestral textures and vocal lines that were sensitive reflections of human speech.
In Prokofiev's youth, ballet was not held in such high regard as opera. Still, the composer, encouraged by the impresario and founder of Ballets Russes Serge Diaghilev, would become probably the greatest ballet composer of the 20th century. Diaghilev commissioned Prokofiev's first four ballets. The composer went on to write four more after Diaghilev's sudden death in 1929, the last three for Soviet companies. Each ballet score is its own stylistic universe. From the blindingly fierce paganism of Ala and Lolli (1914 _1915) to the humorous Russian "lubok" or folk picture of Tale of the Buffoon (1919). And from the dynamic constructivism of The Steel Step (1925 _26), the idealistic picture of Soviet industrialization to the "new simplicity" and lyricism of Romeo and Juliet (1934 _36) and Cinderella (1940 _44).
Never wasteful, the composer followed each ballet with an orchestral suite that utilized its material. This pattern started with Ala and Lolli, unfinished and never staged, but transformed into the famous Scythian Suite. He also used the material from his opera The Fiery Angel for the Third Symphony and themes of the ballet The Prodigal Son for the Fourth.
The theatrical connection between the composer's operas and ballets and his orchestral works does not stop here. Gergiev is convinced that there is no more theatrical cycle in the entire music literature than Prokofiev's seven symphonies. "Some associate different episodes with ballet, some with opera. No matter what: for me it is always a theater, though they all are real symphonies."
Prokofiev's perfect sense of drama and timing and his ability to create precise and colorful characterizations were also transported into the world of cinema. "He is the greatest film composer in history," insists Gergiev. It helped that two of his three film scores: Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan Grosny ("Ivan the Terrible," 1944-46): were produced in close collaboration with the great film director and pioneer of innovative montage, Sergei Eisenstein.
There is a paradox regarding Prokofiev's legacy: his name is well known, some of his works are quite familiar, and many are beloved. Yet, a large part of his creative output still waits to be discovered by wider audiences. It needs the consistent advocacy of a figure like Gergiev.
"There is a fearsome intellect at work with Gergiev that not only manages to inhabit the mind and intentions of the composer, but which also lives and breathes the context and time in which the music was written," wrote one critic upon listening to Gergiev's Prokofiev. He also pointed out that the conductor makes "Prokofiev's permanently febrile musical imagination coherent and consistent..."
As for the maestro himself, he promises: "There will be discoveries for New York: the virtually unknown Tale of the Buffoon and Steel Step or the rarely played Second, Third, Fourth, Six, even Seventh Symphonies. There will be some 'old friends,' like Romeo and Juliet, on which I hope to shed a new light. Prokofiev was an amazing composer of enormous craftsmanship and a man who is still not completely understood. I believe that his universe is so huge and diverse that we will be unearthing and reinterpreting it for many years to come." So the journey continues.
Maya Pritsker writes frequently about the arts.