Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Mostly Mozart & Prokofiev
So. This is the first of what is intended to be a series of blogs between me, your (ie: the Virginia Chorale's) Music Director, and whomever may have enough time on their hands to actually read such blogs. Since I happen to be in the middle of a very eventful month of concerts, I thought I'd start by sharing what I've been up to. I just finished a weekend of concerts at the Bard Music Festival in the Hudson Valley of New York. The Bard Festival is unique among summer arts festivals for devoting its attention to one composer "and his world." This year the composer was Sergey Prokofiev, best known for his educational, fairy-tale orchestral suite, Peter and the Wolf, the "Classical" Symphony, and his ballet, Romeo and Juliet. The Festival features the world's leading scholars in residence, giving lectures, writing articles (published in a Princeton University paperbook that bears the year's festival name, "Sergey Prokofiev and His World") and participating in discussion panels. If that sounds too dry and academic, the festival also boasts a 19th century-style carousel or circus tent, called the Spiegeltent, which is open nightly for dining and entertainment that ranges from topical cabaret and recital music to DJ's and dance music. A film series accompanies the concerts, in additon to operas, plays, and musicals that precede the Festival's two weekends worth of concerts. Should you have so chosen, you could have seen the film actor Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) star in a new production of Checkhov's play, Uncle Vanya, attended a rare production of Gershwin's political satire of a musical, Of Thee I Sing, or a double bill of the polish composer Karol Szymanoski's operas. That is all to say that Bard offers a veritable wealth of cultural opportunities under the seemingly narrow umbrella of one composer and his world. I was brought in to sing on two different programs during the Festival's second weekend. The first was a recital devoted to the music Prokofiev and his contemporaries wrote as citizens in the Soviet Union. Like his older colleague, Stravinsky, Prokofiev (1891-1953) achieved early success as an enfant terrible (literally "terrible child" --a term with which any parent can identify, but in artistic terms here refers to the manifestation of prodigious talent at an early age accompanied by equally prodigious ego/issues/etc...). Prokofiev left Russia as a young adult to win fame and acclaim abroad in the US and Paris (as did Stravinsky), was disillusioned by his emigration, and seems to have returned to the USSR a faithful party member. While the first weekend of concerts was devoted to his early successes and the works composed abroad, the second weekend focused on the works of his Soviet years, and as such, represent a more ambiguous, complex, and uneven body of work. Since this is already turning into too long-winded an entry, I would direct the curious reader to the BMF website, or any number of books, articles, and sources on music and culture under the Iron Curtain & Stalin in particular. Composers in the USSR were called on to write music which uplifted the Soviet people, towed the party line, was uncorrupted by Western, "bourgois" influence, and fit within the difficult-to-define category of "Socialist realism." Prokofiev's opera 'Semyon Kotko' attempted to be such a work, and I had the interesting task of singing the title character's first aria "A soldier home from the front" (but in Russian, of course), depicting the peasant Semyon's return home after 4 years of combat in WWII, his hopes of being reunited with his fiancee, Sofya--a union opposed by her wealthy, land-owning, German-sympathizing father. In a comic aria from Prokofiev's last opera, "The Story of a Real Man" I had the pleasure of singing--in Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired rapid patter (in Russian!)--an aria about Anyuta, the alluring pen- pal of many a Red Army soldier whose love-letters are reducing the valiant commanders of Russia to ineffectual drivel, and thus deleteriously affecting the war effort! The final concert of the festival was devoted to large-scale works by Prokofiev and one of his colleagues, Vladimir Dukelsky (more widely known here as the song-writer, Vernon Duke). I sang Prokofiev's early cantata, 'They are Seven' with the largest orchestra in front of which I've ever stood. A wild and dramatic evocation of an ancient, Arkkadian epitaph, the poem depicts 7 god-like figures who have power over all the elements and are rendered as cold, evil destroyers whose power may be conjured with the proper incantation--in this case, a screaming tenor soloist, a large chorus, and a sprawling orchestra of about 100 players!