June 26, 2007
Festivals should celebrate something that doesn't happen every day. The fourth and last program of the San Francisco Symphony's Prokofiev Festival was no exception to this ideal, with an unusual structure and repertoire adding spice to the expected high-quality performances and enthusiastic receptions that do happen most every day with this orchestra.
Structurally, the concert was really three concertlets: a piano recital, a piano concerto, and a concert of Prokofiev's "primitivist" works from 1917 and 1915. The recital consisted of three numbers (Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations and Prokofiev's Sonatas Nos. 3 and 7), the first two of which began an hour early at 1 p.m. and the last of which opened the concert proper at 2 p.m. The way it worked out, the recital could be considered to have had an "intermission" from 1:30 to 2 p.m., with a concerto as an encore. The concerto was Prokofiev's seldom-played No. 4 for the left hand. After an interval, the third short concert presented the cantata Seven, They Are Seven and the Scythian Suite.
That the festival presented unusual repertoire is confirmed by checking the records of the American Symphony Orchestra League, which tracks season performances for more than 300 U.S. orchestras. Over the last five years, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Scythian Suite have been performed an average of only once a year in the U.S. and Canada. They Are Seven was never performed during that period.
Of Gods and Man
The pianist was Ilya Yakushev, a protégé of Vladimir Feltsman. He has all the technical chops of his mentor and a secure musicality, the combination of which elicited many bravos from listeners. His most electric performance was that of the Third Sonata. The Rachmaninov, on the other hand, presented the most difficulties. The playing sounded slightly heavy overall and occasionally out of tempo when Yakushev seemed forced to insert slight pauses in order to produce accurate landings from wide leaps on the piano.
The Fourth Piano Concerto is a strange bird. The highlight is a lovely Andante, with a theme worthy of the composer's Romeo and Juliet. After this second movement, Prokofiev placed a discursive, mixed bag of a Moderato that ends with a banged note in the piano, and then defied convention by following it with a fourth movement, a 90-second Vivace. Although audience members had programs in front of them, Michael Tilson Thomas, as part of a rather lackluster rendition overall (not enough Romeo-Juliet passion in that second movement), failed to indicate that another movement was coming. Applause burst out, which Yakushev tried to brush away with his unused right hand.
All was forgiven, however, when after an interval MTT and the orchestra returned with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus to present a galvanizing performance of Seven, They Are Seven. From the stage beforehand, MTT warned the audience that Seven … and the Scythian Suite to follow both required "a heavy-duty level of earplugs," and that Prokofiev was a "wannabe" Rite of Spring composer following Stravinsky's example.
The Seven are evil Chaldean gods asked to appear in an incantation deciphered from the walls of an Akkadian temple. Prokofiev set hair-raising music for these "apostles of unspeakable plagues." Although the music lasts seven-plus minutes, it generates shudders that are remembered for weeks. Just as scary is the opening of the Scythian Suite, with 10 percussionists, eight horns, five trumpets, and four trombones adding their cacophony to the "Adoration of Vélèss and Ala." Throughout, the orchestra performed admirably. Seven, They Are Seven was enhanced by the services of tenor Philip Webb, whose voice powerfully and accurately (notewise if not in terms of Russian pronunciation) rose above the tumult.
Effective as the incantations were, no evil gods appeared downtown. Perhaps the overwhelming positivism of Gay Pride festivities next to City Hall was too much for even them to handle.