Perhaps more than any other composer, Sergei Prokofiev's music embodies the transition from nineteenth-century romanticism to twentieth-century modernism, and traverses quite a distance in the process.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Winter Festival, Around Prokofiev, held March 5 through March 19, 2009, endeavors to unlock some of the mysteries of this enigmatic composer. "Prokofiev is a multi-talented genius and we wanted to look at him from different perspectives," says cellist David Finckel, who with his wife, pianist Wu Han, is artistic director of the Chamber Music Society. "We decided to surround his music with works of composers we considered relevant musical voices, whether they were from Prokofiev's time or not. We came up with some very interesting pairings."
Prokofiev's life is notable for several reasons. Brought up in Soviet Russia, his work was, for the most part, never embraced by the government. He lived abroad for a dozen years, including two years in the United States and a decade in Paris, and was the only Russian composer to return to the Soviet Union while it was still under Soviet control. He was seduced back by the promise of creature comforts and the ease at obtaining commissions and performances of his works in his homeland. He suffered under the oppressive regime, especially during World War II, and his music often reflected that anguish with an unbridled intensity.
Finckel, Wu Han and the programming staff at the Chamber Music Society listened to just about every piece of chamber music Prokofiev ever wrote, along with a lot of his music by his contemporaries. This extensive research formed the basis for the Winter Festival's programs. The six core concerts, four of which will be performed in the newly renovated Alice Tully Hall, put Prokofiev side by side with his neighbors of his adopted home in 1920's Paris, looks at the relationship between him and Dmitri Shostakovich, and imagines a personal and collegial friendship with Benjamin Britten. The most far-reaching of the programs juxtaposes parallel works by Prokofiev with those of Felix Mendelssohn from a century earlier. Other key performances include the intimate Evenings for Contemporary Music and the Schism program, both of which will be presented in the Daniel and Johanna S. Rose Studio; they provide bookends of the Winter Festival and the context of Prokofiev's life.
"Prokofiev is not famous as a composer of chamber music like Mozart or Beethoven," explains Finckel. "The works that he did write are often powerful and compelling, yet many remain unfamiliar to audiences. Because Prokofiev transplanted himself from one garden to another, looking for the place that he would best grow, his styles and his messages changed wildly over the course of his career."
Paris, where Prokofiev lived and worked for over a decade, had an enormous effect on him. Prokofiev's Paris (March 8) recreates the Parisian music scene which surrounded Prokofiev when he was there. Finckel notes that Paris in the 1920s was an amazing confluence of writers, thinkers, and visual artists, including composers Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc.
The concert on March 15 explores the relationship between Prokofiev and his younger countryman, Dmitri Shostakovich. Finckel observes that the most obvious tie between Prokofiev and Shostakovich is the Jewish thematic scheme. As an example, he cites Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes and Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 4, which employ an almost identical Jewish folksong. "They were competitors and not the best of friends, " notes Finckel, "but they moved within the same circles and drew from the same sources."
Prokofiev and twentieth-century English composer Benjamin Britten never met, but they certainly knew of each other. They both wrote songs, chamber music, and operas, and they both had a real affection for music for children: Prokofiev's legendary Peter and the Wolf, is matched in whimsy and scale by Britten's children's opera, Noye's Fludde. Finckel muses, "I dream of an incredible relationship. They'll meet here on our stage on March 13 and create a virtual relationship. We'll see if they get along," he adds, laughing.
"The works of Felix Mendelssohn provide an example of how music can bridge the ages so clearly as to be dumbfounding," says Finckel. "Pairs of works by Mendelssohn and Prokofiev in the exact same keys express an alternately optimistic and pessimistic outlook on the world. The bright works are in D major: Prokofiev's Flute Sonata No. 1 and Mendelssohn's String Quartet Op. 44 No 1: and they could not be more sunny and exuberant. On the other hand, the anguish of Mendelssohn's last quartet in F minor parallels the terrifying emotions of Prokofiev's first violin sonata in the same key. Listening to these in pairs is fascinating and rewarding."
In his conservatory days, Prokofiev often performed his own compositions at a concert series in St. Petersburg, Evenings for Contemporary Music. This series showcased the most important contemporary Russian music, and also was the first time Russian audiences heard the music of Schoenberg, Debussy, and Ravel. The Chamber Music Society recreates this experience at the Rose Studio on March 5, with early piano pieces by Prokofiev alongside music by Stravinsky, Debussy, and Prokofiev's good friend, Nikolay Myaskovsky.
Representing the other end of Prokofiev's timeline is Schism on March 19, a program which celebrates the music condemned by a Soviet government decree. "Anything adventurous got the ax," declares Finckel, "including music by Prokofiev and Shostakovich." Finckel is eagerly looking forward to performing the lushly romantic Cello Sonata No. 2 by Myaskovsky as well as Prokofiev's intensely beautiful Cello Sonata. "Galina Ustvolskaya's Clarinet Trio was a work so radical that it could have never been performed in its day in the Soviet Union," adds Finckel, "And it's incredible to realize that all of the pieces on this program were composed in a two-year time frame, 1948 _1949."
Finckel is thrilled to be able to present the Chamber Music Society's Winter Festival, Around Prokofiev, in the newly renovated Alice Tully Hall. "This upgrade of New York's premiere chamber music hall is one of the most exciting things for us. Our sound will be reborn in the same way the new hall is reborn."
In Around Prokofiev, Finckel promises concertgoers familiar moments and undiscovered sounds. "This provocative and mysterious composer was determined to create his own path and he didn't care what others thought of him."
For tickets and information, visit Chamber Music Society.
Gail Wein writes frequently about the arts.