Rotterdam Prokofiev Festival


Sviatoslav Prokofiev and Frederic Chiu.

The following evening, the superb Mariinsky Chorus stole the show with a program including the Alexander Nevsky Cantata and Abram Stasevich’s arrangement of the score from the film Ivan the Terrible. It didn’t hurt, of course, that they were joined on stage by the woman considered by many to be the greatest mezzo-soprano in the world today, Olga Borodina, and by bass Evgeny Nikitin. Listening again to the carefully crafted, varied and spiritually rich music from Ivan reminded me that it is one of Prokofiev’s most profound and theatrical scores, a synthesis and crowning summation of all he had done in film, ballet and opera during the preceding decades.
     The most unusual theatrical/symphonic event of the Festival occurred on 8 September, when the Rotterdam Young Philharmonic joined a group of distinguished Dutch actors under the direction of Guy Cassiers to present a semi-staged version of Eugene Onegin, accompanied by the incidental orchestral music Prokofiev composed for Alexander Tairov’s production in 1936, as reconstructed by Sir Edward Downes. The actors (reading appropriate excerpts from Pushkin’s novel) were placed at microphones behind the orchestra, and their faces were projected in close-up onto screens on either side of the stage, producing an unusual visual counterpoint.
     On 7 September, the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra gave two energetic and well-received performances of their staging of George Balanchine’s choreography for Prodigal Son in the Rotterdam Schouwburg Theatre, along with the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet (in Leonid Lavrovsky’s choreography) and a selection from Cinderella choreographed by Aleksei Ratmansky. To see Balanchine’s choreography – long banned from the Mariinsky/Kirov company because of his status as an émigré living in America and restored to the repertoire in Russia – is highly gratifying. Two days later, Gergiev conducted the Rotterdam Philharmonic in a pensive reading of the symphony that Prokofiev later fashioned from the music to Prodigal Son, the Fourth Symphony, in the more expansive 1947 revision.
     Each day, a film was screened. The selection included both features and documentaries, some already familiar (Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible) and some that most members of the audience were seeing for the first time (Lieutenant Kije). Among the films were several made in Russia, including both parts of Viktor Okuntsov’s 1991 documentary on the composer, and others made in the West: Blinding Wildness (1997, about the Scythian Suite, with extensive footage of Oleg Prokofiev talking about his father’s music) and Andrei Nekrasov’s The Prodigal Son (1991, with some dramatised episodes).
     Yet another film, The Master and his Pupil (2002), directed by Sonia Herman Dolz, dealt not with Prokofiev but with the art of conducting, as taught by Gergiev to three aspiring conductors, including Otto Tausk, now Gergiev’s assistant conductor at the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Yet another unusual aspect of the Festival was the programming of theatrical monologues composed and staged (in Dutch) especially for the occasion: one (by Gitta op den Akker) dealt with the ballerina Galina Ulanova; one (by Alex Verburg) dramatised Prokofiev (played by Fred van der Hilst) deciding to return to Russia; and one (by Aletta Becker) portrayed the three important women (Prokofiev’s mother and his two successive wives Lina and Mira) in the composer’s life. On 8 September, the acclaimed Dutch writer Anna Enquist collaborated with pianist Ivo Janssen in a highly effective piece that combined a performance of Prokofiev’s wartime Sixth Sonata with the reading of two monologues about the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940.
     Finally, the Festival included numerous lectures and interviews on literary, musicological and biographical aspects of Prokofiev’s career. On 6 September, a Dutch television personality conducted a very lively interview with Maestro Gergiev (in Dutch), in which he spoke not only of his passionate love for Prokofiev, but also for soccer and Rotterdam. Maestro Gergiev also participated in a symposium which I moderated, on 7 September; other participants included biographer David Nice, American musicologist Stephen Press, Russian musicologist Leonid Gakkel, and Dutch chess expert Lex Jongsma. The symposium concluded with a fascinating performance of the complete score of the ballet Trapèze, performed by members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. In addition, I gave two lectures, an introduction to the Festival on 4 September and a pre-concert lecture on Prokofiev’s film music on 11 September.
     The last full day of the Festival (13 September) came to a memorable conclusion with the appearance of Prokofiev’s sole surviving child, his son Sviatoslav, who came from Paris with his son Serge to participate in a pre-concert interview which I conducted before the symphonic concert. Speaking to a packed hall, Sviatoslav held forth with wit and warmth on his memories of his brilliant and often puzzling father. With special and deserved pride he described the painstaking work he and Serge had undertaken in order to publish the two volumes of Prokofiev’s diaries, which appeared in late 2002. For Sviatoslav no less than for the participants and listeners fortunate enough to attend, the events of the Gergiev Festival 2003 represented one of the most complete, imaginative and important celebrations of the music of Sergei Prokofiev the world has ever seen.

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