BWW Reviews: ALEXANDER NEVSKY with Music by Prokofiev Performed by BSO
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by Charles Shubow
What a night it was for cinephiles and classical music lovers. It was a sandwich comprised of what is considered one of the best 100 films of all time, ALEXANDER NEVSKY along with a powerful score by noted classical composer Sergei Prokofiev.
I really didn't know what to expect watching a film on a screen above BSO Music Director Marin Alsop. In front of her music were two computers in which she could get the music clues for the brilliant score by one of the most famous Russian composers. Signs in the lobby made it clear that there would be NO intermission so therefore the BSO would be playing almost continuously for almost two hours. I wondered how Alsop would react. And when it was over, I've never seen her look more exhausted. Just imagine conducting for such a long period without a break.
But what a job she did conducting the terrific BSO and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. What a trio - a film, music, and a chorus.
This was the second time the BSO presented the film with the score. It was done about 10 years ago with then BSO Music Director Youri Temirkanov who has recorded the music with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and Chorus.
The 1938 film was directed by Sergei Eisenstein and is considered a landmark of Russian cinema. Prokofiev had just returned from a trip to Hollywood where he had been investigating new sound techniques and had fallen in love with Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".
So when he was asked by Director Eisenstein to write the music, he was elated. They worked on the film for a six month period in 1938 sometimes Prokofiev writing the music first and sometimes writing music for what was on the screen. It was a happy and successful collaberation.
Both the composer and director were well aware of the importance of being successful with Joseph Stalin looming large. They were both in danger of serious repercussions unless they delivered what Stalin wanted, a heroic tale about an heroic figure from the 13th century, Alexander Nevsky.
For those unaquainted with their 13th century Russian history (I sure was ignorant of it), it's a true story of this champion warrior who took on Teutonic invaders and defeated them in a herioic victory in 1242.
1n 1938, Russians were very aware of the German Army and the possibility of an invasion. The film portrays the Germans in a very hostile manner and that is why Stalin loved it.
The music is just stunning. The Germans are represented by harsh trumpets while the sympathetic Russian forces are represented by folk-like instruments such as woodwinds and strings often playing folksong type music.
There were several standout portions. "Arise, ye Russian People" was so powerful and inspirational that it made want to sign up to join Nevsky's army.
"The Battle of the Ice", the longest movement was written to accompany the death of the enemy drowning under sheets of ice.
And finally, "The Field of the Dead" demonstrates a young girl kissing the eyelids of the dead heroes and features a gorgeous vocal solo sung by the superb Irena Tchistjakova who was perched on a high balcony alone about the orchestra.
All in all one learned a lot about Russian history, saw a terrific and classic film and listened to some stirring and inspirational music.
What a night.
Next up at the BSO is more Russian music "Ravishing Rachmaninoff" on Sunday afternoon, January 20, 2013. On on Saturday evening, the popular "Off the Cuff" concert at 7 p.m. features Garrick Ohlsson and Maestra Alsop talking about and performing the famous Third Piano Concerto.
For tickets, call 410-783-8001 or visit www.BSOmusic.org.