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I was very excited at

I love Prokofiev’s music. His First Violin Concerto is perhaps the one most dear to me in the repertory (there’s some magic in it), and I think his music has incredible character. The orchestra had already learnt this music for a concert the previous semester (we took it on tour with us to Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava), so going into the production I felt very secure in meeting the musical demands of the work. The greatest challenge I expected was coordinating the orchestral part with the rest of the production. The prospect of being positioned somewhere in scaffolding was also a cause for concern, both in terms of the logistics of seeing our conductor, Michael Pratt, and for some, the chances of surviving the production. Fortunately, these problems were not as serious as expected. The string section was seated on the lower tier of the scaffolding so we were at the same level as the conductor, and from talking to the woodwinds (seated in the upper tier), seeing the conductor was not an issue. But I regretted not being able to see any of the play from the audience’s perspective.

The one piece that we had not included in our previous performance of this music was Kseniia’s song – a piece I found similar to Evfrosiniia Staritskaia’s song about a beaver in Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible. Reading Eisenstein’s “From Lectures on Music and Colour in Ivan the Terrible”, I was struck by his account of Prokofiev’s thoughtful approach to composing Staritskaia’s song – his attention to detail concerning the stresses on individual words, making sure that Eisenstein’s emotional objectives were achieved at every moment. I felt that this approach must have held for Kseniia’s song, in which the musical features seemed to support Kseniia’s mourning very accurately. The accompanying texture with its shifting harmony and lack of bass (two violas constitute the lowest string instruments of only six scored for this song) allows for the vocal line to seem distant, lost in another world. The remorse conveyed through the song closely follows the emotional contour of the text:

“Why don’t your lips
Speak to me,

(These two lines feature a descending phrase typical of mourning)
Your bright eyes
Look at me?

(Here there is an upwards reach as the voice almost soars)
Or have your lips
Closed for ever,

(There is a distinct minor bitterness in these two lines as she considers the possibility)
Your bright eyes
Set for ever?”

(With the cadential resolution of the melodic phrase here she realises that his eyes are not looking at her)
 
It is a very beautiful song, but not without its challenges. For much of Kseniia’s song, the instrumental phrases are grouped in brackets of 4 beats while the time signature specifies 6 beats (6/4). This results in 3 phrases being split across 2 bars. The soprano line was phrased in groups of 4 beats and 2 beats, which moved it out of phase with the strings. The hemiola caused some confusion, since the accents did not line up with the start of the bar where they normally would. It would be very easy for a singer to miss her entry. The resulting uncertainty as to whether we should continue to play our unsynchronised accompaniment and wait for the singer to make the necessary adjustment, or adjust ourselves to accommodate her, was harrowing.
The meaning of the music was altogether transformed when heard with Pushkin’s words. When I had performed it previously in concert, I knew roughly the mood of each of the pieces but had very little idea as to their placement in the play. Besides Kseniia’s song, I found two other musical moments extremely exciting. The first was the battle scene in which the brass and percussion were positioned in different parts of the theatre. The terrific clash of the two styles of these small groups playing different music at different tempi simultaneously was something that made me smile every time – it was a fascinating means of complementing the visual action.

The second was the finale. This powerful, tumultuous, and unstoppable music (a simple C-minor melody over a throbbing, slowly intensifying arpeggio pattern) made my hair stand on end. The addition of the men’s chorus was particularly effective. The terrible scream that occurred when Feodor and Marina were assassinated did not seem at all out of place with the music we played. As the leader of my section, I was responsible for making sure we entered correctly, which required no small degree of contortions in order to see the conductor’s hands. Due to space restrictions, the set design and the requirements of the actors on the stage, there was no way of making this any easier.

One novel aspect of the performance was the brightly coloured wigs we wore for the Polish scenes. Although it was difficult not to feel somewhat ridiculous, I understood that given our location within and behind a large amount of scaffolding, such high-contrast colours were necessary to represent adequately the intended decadence of the Poles. Ultimately however, I felt privileged to be involved in this unique and memorable production..

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