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For his annual summer festival cycle, music director Michael Tilson Thomas has chosen a thematically arranged survey of Prokofiev, a composer who has not figured prominently in the conductor’s recent seasons. The more ingratiating scores – Romeo and Juliet, the third piano concerto, the orchestral suite from The Love for Three Oranges – came first, were dispatched with brio and cleared the path for a session devoted to what the orchestra branded “explosive modernism”, of mid-1920s vintage.
The programming served notice that 20th-century music history has been built on our evolving ideas of modernism. For Prokofiev, who spent many of his middle years away from Russia, modernism meant the artistic innovations he found everywhere in Paris and in the sonorities and motor rhythms of a new industrial age.
In some major way, the Third Symphony, completed in 1929, seems
a substantial chapter in an infuriating musical autobiography. With material drawn from The Fiery Angel, his lurid 1919 opera, Prokofiev painted a broad canvas, on which cataclysmic dissonances yield to episodes of lyricism. Tilson Thomas’s fearless reading proved an enveloping experience, in which even the few reflective moments sustained awesome tension. Profound? Doubtful. Arresting? Absolutely.
The relentless acerbity of the second piano concerto, recomposed in 1924 by Prokofiev after the original score perished in a fire, found a magisterial interpreter in Vladimir Feltsman. The concerto will never massively engage audiences; the oddly proportioned four movements (the middle two are bridges between the mammoth opening and finale) and lack of emotional centre disorient the ear, while the intricacy of the solo writing summons admiration.
Odder still is the 1926 American Overture, the title honouring its commissioner, rather than its spirit. The 17 instruments, minus high strings, conspire to create an awesome sonic texture, though you come away relishing the cheekiness rather than finding the inspiration. As festival fare, the piece did its job. Tel +1 415 864 6000
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