Thursday, May 05, 2011

National Symphony and Jarvi: The Prokofiev Sixth really snarls; the Tchaikovsky could use some Aronofsky

Thursday, May 05, 2011, I attended a National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, conducted by Swedish guest conductor Neeme Jarvi, well known for his large catalogue of post-romantic recordings with the Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos.  Tonight, the theme was Russia, but that oversimplifies.

The Event (no pun on NBC's extraterrestrial landing) opened with Alexander Glazunov’s Concert Waltz #1 in D, Op. 47, a lively piece, that left me remembering that my favorite concert waltz is still the Carousel Waltz by Rodgers.

Then Yefim Bronfman performed as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, composed at age 34. Jarvi started the D-flat major horn theme before Bronfman was seated at the Steinway!  The famous introduction is taken for granted today, but starting out a piece in the relative major can sound trite unless skillfully handled. In fact, the whole device works because the main body of the First Movement is so masterfully put together, with all its complicated rhythms, building up to a B-flat Major triumphant conclusion that got an applause in its own right. (The other masterful movement in this key is the first movement of Chopin’s Second Sonata, which also culminates in a B-flat Major climactic conclusion.  On the other hand, Chopin’s B-flat minor Scherzo has always sounded trite to me because it does end in D-flat Major.)  Two more movements follow, with the ¾ Rondo finale that was one of the earlier examples of concluding a minor-keyed piano concerto with a “big tune” in the parallel major, a concept most often associated with Rachmaninoff.  (Grieg had done it already.)

Bronfman dispatched the technical difficulties easily, and sometimes seemed to want attention for what he could do as soloist – as if he wanted to be played  a Tchaikovsky  Piano Sonata (G or C# Minor), either an impressive piece.

Bronfman played an encore, a Liszt adaptation of an opera tune I could not identify (I’ll add when I find out.)
The encore shortened the intermission, leading us to the reason I came to the concert, to hear Prokofiev’s Symphony #6 in E-flat Minor.  Who can resist this weird masterpiece?  Who can pass up a piece in a minor key with six flats (the only minor key whose triad is all on black keys), starting so ambiguously in the horns, and then weaving us around with dour neoromantic melodies, with a thick palate, and  Prokofiev-trademarked sense of motor-mounting.  I planned the whole day around hearing this.  (This whole concert was not for people who like sharps more than flats.)

But actually, in many places, the music has the sound of late Mahler (almost as much so as some of Shostakovich), particularly with the serene but anxious close of the first movement, and then at the bizarre end, where Prokofiev, after some Haydn-rondo-like merriment, brings back his snarky side. It’s wonderful; the wrong notes are just right.  Finally, the last drop-roll crashes to E-flat Major. (That’s why he needed six flats for his opening movement, not one sharp.)  The whole effect, however, has a well-known precedent: the Rondo finale of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.

The Kennedy Center preceded the concert with a free Hall performance from the Levine School of Music, with young people playing Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (in C), and then some jazz, which it played much better.

Outside, in the Potomac, high school rowing teams practiced (or maybe college).  Washington-Lee High School maybe?  Reminds me of the “Winklevi” (as both Piers Morgan and Mark Zuckerberg call the twins in “The Social Network”; but there was no Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt tonight; stay with Prokofiev.)

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