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Opulent Dexterity

June 19, 2007

Sergei Prokofiev is the modernist composer for people who don't like modernist composers. There's plenty of time to contemplate this phenomenon in the San Francisco Symphony's Prokofiev Festival that began last Thursday and runs through this weekend. An article by James M. Keller in the Symphony's program book documents his extraordinary popularity among 20th century composers in the symphonic repertoire, ahead even of Igor Stravinsky. In newspaper interviews, Symphony Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik has called Prokofiev "the master of beauty," and music director Michael Tilson Thomas has called his Romeo and Juliet ballet score "extravagantly and opulently melodic."
But listen to Romeo and Juliet, as the audience at Flint Center in Cupertino did on Sunday in a performance dedicated to Prokofiev the "Radical Populist." While the quality of the music is not in doubt, a listener might wonder at its popularity. Parts are lush and melodic, indeed, but Prokofiev didn't write the kind of conventionally hummable tunes, ready to be turned into pop songs, that his Russian predecessors Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky did. Even Prokofiev's most melodic themes are jumpy and rhythmically irregular, and they're often full of chromatic notes. And some of the most memorable parts of the music, as with the Shakespeare play that inspired it, are the most harsh and brutal.

Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is usually heard in the concert hall in the form of suites arranged by the composer that excerpt, abridge, reorder, and recombine parts of the original ballet score. But what the Symphony played on Sunday was strict excerpts from the ballet music, slightly less than half of the ballet's first two acts — up to the death of Tybalt — mostly in the order in which the events occur on stage. Tilson Thomas ran his 16 excerpts together into three movements, setting off the long central Balcony Scene, the most opulently melodic part, from the preceding montage of stark dances and character portraits, as well as from the following catastrophic tumble into the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt.

So there were several pieces of music, as well as some sections of individual pieces, that are not heard in the suites. What the ballet excerpts show that the suites don't is Prokofiev's use of leitmotifs, representative themes for particular characters or situations that reappear in different contexts or in transmuted form. Romeo and Juliet is not just a series of dances; it's a symphonically developed conception.

This was a somber performance, dark and moving, full of splendid color from the orchestra — especially in some touching moments for solo strings in the Balcony Scene — but in no way light or cheerful, let alone extravagant or beautiful. Tilson Thomas jumped on the balls of his feet a few times, but otherwise avoided becoming a ballet dancer himself. He mostly stood rigidly in place, leading with an absolute minimum of gesture — so little that at the start of one movement, the Folk Dance, he lost control of the orchestra, and the four crisp opening sforzando chords came out as a chaotic mess.
In Love With Ease
If Romeo and Juliet afforded little clue to Prokofiev's popularity, the other half of the concert offered an answer. Prokofiev is fun to listen to. The composer's suite from the opera The Love for Three Oranges, also a major reworking of the theatrical score, was bright, crisp, and lively. The opera's origin in a commedia dell'arte tale by Carlo Gozzi was never forgotten in this rendition. The famous March — possibly still best remembered as the theme music for an old radio show about the FBI — was only one of the suite's delightful moments instead of a conspicuously familiar standout.

But better still was the Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 26. The Symphony is presenting all five of Prokofiev's piano concertos during this festival, with four different pianists, all of Russian or Soviet origin but now resident elsewhere. This concert was the turn of Yefim Bronfman with the Third, by far the best-known of the five. The Third is a large but not monumental concerto. It's not an opportunity for the soloist to show heroic stamina but a chance to demonstrate energy and dexterity.

Bronfman displayed these qualities with ease. For all his bearlike physique and heavy attacks on the keyboard, he's an astonishingly subtle player. He never bangs the piano or rides roughshod over the orchestra; if anything, he allowed it to overpower him at times. But his energy was tireless. The first movement of the concerto was so definitive that the audience applauded vigorously. Bronfman, collar askew, stood up to take a bow, and Tilson Thomas jokingly stepped down from the podium as if to leave the stage because the piece was over.

If it had been the end, we would have missed an equally exquisite slow movement and finale. Bronfman's skill with the quieter music of the concerto was as great, and as full of energy, as with the loud sections. His runs up and down the keyboard had a light but vigorous touch that created a sound like well-played Chopin, and in some separated notes and short passages his hands bounced crisply up as if the keys were made of rubber.

The orchestra complemented Bronfman's style splendidly. The flutes never shrieked as the score sometimes encourages them to do. The castanets that enliven the first movement's second theme perfectly meshed with the oboe and clarinet that carry the tune. But the finest marks for crispness and energy must go to the strings. Col legno playing in the finale was just exotic enough without sounding harsh, especially in the violas. There's a moment in the slow movement's andante fourth variation where the second violins, divided, play descending chromatic scales. These came out with just the right light suggestion of eeriness. It was only one of many deft touches that made this concerto the essence of fun in music.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.