The masterpiece by Prokofiev and Sergei Eisenstein

By Philippa Kiraly

How many film directors hope to boast that their movies are being shown and revered more than 70 years after their making? There can be few talking movies in that category before Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev collaborated on the epic “Alexander Nevsky” in 1938, one of the first and arguably the most massive movie production ever at that time and the forerunner of others in similar vein from “Ben Hur” to “Spartacus” and more.

“Nevsky” is black and white and a bit grainy by current standards, but what has helped to keep it high in the category of great films is the musical score by Prokofiev. To his great credit, Eisenstein allowed the composer considerable rein in his musical portrayals of the plot.

Prokofiev later put much of the music into a seven-section cantata, and the Auburn Symphony played it at its final pair of season concerts Saturday night.

It was the best attended ASO concert I’ve been to in the 13 years of its existence, and many also came to the preconcert lecture where KUOW’s Dave Beck (a cellist with the orchestra) and conductor Stewart Kershaw showed excerpts from the film and discussed it. As well as talking about the music, they included such nuggets as that the film, portraying a bitter winter, was made in an 85 degree heatwave, which must have been hard on Teutonic knights wearing full armor and metal helmets, and even more difficult to provide thick ice on a lake cracking under the weight of horses, knights and armor.

The concert began with another winter-themed work, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, “Winter Dreams,” his Op. 13 and first full length work.  It’s not heard that often, and the musical reasons are clear, but it’s nevertheless worth an airing.

Written at 26, Tchaikovsky the melodist is already there. The music is full of beautiful themes, though he doesn’t always know what to do with them. He adds fugues in one place, syncopation in another, all skillfully done but they don’t necessarily forward the musical flow. The second movement, gentle and lovely, lasts a few minutes too long before reaching a peroration. The whole symphony is gentle, but all its colors are pastel and there is not a lot of spark. Apart from a more lively third movement scherzo, it needs more bite, more defiinition. It could have used an editor to make Tchaikovsky tighten it up, as it is too long at 45 minutes. However, he learned from it as we know from the many masterpieces which came from his pen later.

The ASO did the symphony proud. From the start, the orchestra gave the impression of very effective rehearsal. It doesn’t have much rehearsal time, but each section was notably together so that the cellos or the horns, for instance, sounded like one instrument playing. The tone sang, the tempos felt right, and the wind soloists shone, particularly oboist Selena Gresso.

“Nevsky,” although the top-billed work on the program, is shorter, 35 minutes. Prokofiev wanted a big orchestra, far more than the small group who originally performed it in the movie, plus a chorus, here the excellent Federal Way Chorale, and a contralto soloist, on this occasion Kyra Humphrey.

The work is a model of succinct tone painting, from bitter weather, to peasants being stirrred up by Nevsky, to the crusading knights and their religious leaders, to the huge battle on the ice, to the grief and mourning after, to Nevsky’s triumphal homecoming.

There’s not one note too many, yet it’s full of drama and memorable melody such as the strong songs of the peasants, of the crusaders, of the grieving woman.

Again, the orchestra played with panache. One small problem seemed that a percussion player appeared to be less familiar with Kershaw’s conducting beat, and was often slightly off tempo with the basses or cellos on the other side of the stage, when there should have beern exact synchrony.

It was a pleasure, however to go to a performance where the dynamics were in proportion, the softs just right, the louds not overdone. Recently we have heard too much of the latter at symphony concerts.

The encore—Auburn always does an encore—was an arrangement for orchestra by clarinetist and Tacoma native Sean Osborn, often heard with Seattle Chamber Music Society, of Debussy’s “La cathedrale engloutie.” It translates well to orchestra in Osborn’s version.

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