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Prokofiev Marathon

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Music Performance Reviews

Lincoln Center Festival
Martha Cooper, Director of Marketing

Prokofiev Marathon

By Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower

Alice Tully Hall

July 19, 2003

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Artistic Director: David Shifrin
Piano: Anne-Marie McDermott
Clarinet: David Shifrin
Bassoon: Monica Ellis, Frank Morelli, Douglas Quint, Jennifer Rhodes
Violin: Ani Kavafian
Violin: Ida Kavafian
Cello: Fred Sherry
Double Bass: Edgar Meyer

Orion String Quartet

Violin: Daniel Phillips
Violin: Todd Phillips
Viola: Steven Tenenbom
Cello: Timothy Eddy

(Also see Opera at Caffe Taci)

Program A (Program B is July 26, 2003): (3:00 PM) Sonata No. 1 for Piano in F Minor; Ballade in C Minor for Cello and Piano; Adagio from Cinderella for Cello and Piano; Sonata No. 5 for Piano in C Major; Humoresque Scherzo for Four Bassoons; Quartet for Strings No. 1 in B Minor; Sonata No. 6 for Piano in A Major; (8:00 PM) Sonata No. 2 for Piano in D Minor; Quartet for Strings No. 2 in F Major; Sonata for Unison Violins in D Major; Overture on Hebrew Themes for Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano; Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major; Sonata No. 7 for Piano in B-Flat Major.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) has always been one of my favorite composers, having scored the music for the ballets, Romeo and Juliet (See Boston Ballet Reviews) and Cinderella, for the historical and massive film, Alexander Nevsky, and for numerous Sonatas, Symphonies, Operas, and Concertos. This two-day Prokofiev Marathon (second day is July 26, 2003) was the brainchild of Anne-Marie McDermott, a young, brilliant pianist, and The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Ms. McDermott took much of the lead in creating extensive program notes and in offering humorous and informative talks to the audience, in advance of each piece. Those pieces for which piano was not included were announced and briefly discussed by other lead musicians.

Prokofiev, who lived in the Soviet Union as a student and during World War I, as well as in Stalinist Russia from 1936 until his death on the same day as Stalin, in 1953, was torn by political influence over his musical compositions. Prokofiev also resided in the United States, where he was less popular, and in Paris, where he was widely accepted. (Festival Notes). Prokofiev's music can be tormented, titanic, touching, and torrential. It can also be lush, melodic, and poignant. One finds disturbing dissonance and heightened harmony, soothing softness and pyrotechnic percussion, lilting lyricism and thundering toccatas.

Prokofiev wrote nine Sonatas for Piano, during the span of 40 years. All nine will be played by Anne-Marie McDermott in the course of the two-day Prokofiev Marathon. On this day, I heard five Sonatas for Piano. Ms. McDermott has a relaxing and educative style, when she addresses the audience. But, at the piano, she becomes totally focused, driven, and dynamic in her approach to the music. The Sonatas were all played without the assistance of sheet music. Whether the music called for compelling passion, such as Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, or moody melancholy, such as Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, or sensational passion, such as Sonata No. 7 in B-Flat Major, Ms. McDermott was filled with energy and emotion and never seemed to show fatigue or distress, during the course of this monumental, performance challenge.

Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, although melodic, was dramatic, wild, and foreboding of the darker contrasts in the following Sonatas. This particular piece would be an excellent score for a short, romantic ballet. Sonata No. 5 in D Minor was esoteric, with more drama and less passion. It was abstract and dissonant, percussive and driven, an intellectual piece with rustic elements. Sonata No. 6 in A Major seemed to include a macabre waltz, like a shadowy dance on dark, crooked streets, with surreal and ephemeral tones. I heard some somber passages, reminiscent of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (from my earliest Prokofiev experience).

During Ms. McDermott's performance of Sonata No 2 in D Minor, I sensed that she played with the innate force necessary to inhabit Prokofiev's soul, to understand his mood, mental focus, and musical intentions. As I had switched my evening seat to front left corner, from my afternoon seat of front right corner, I had an excellent view of the piano and of Ms. McDermott's body language, which was intense and at one with her music. Her facial gestures were clearly aimed at engaging her audience. The rapid, imitative themes in the final movement were designed to be off-key, ironic, and eery. Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-Flat Major included a theme of bells, at times defiant, at times subdued, and the momentum built with dynamic drama.

The Chamber pieces were briefer and immensely effective in showcasing Prokofiev's versatility and virtuosity. Fred Sherry, on cello, and Ms. McDermott joined forces for Ballade in C Minor, Adagio from Cinderella, and Sonata in C Major. The Ballade created overwhelming emotions, as Mr. Sherry held his bow endlessly, almost existentially, to extend exquisite notes. At times the music called for skipped octaves, as notes were achingly low and funereal. In contrast, the Cinderella theme is the one in which Cinderella falls in love with the Prince at the Ball. I remember it well from the ballet. It is poignant and searing, with Mr. Sherry telling this story with his evocative cello. In this Sonata Mr. Sherry's bow literally rippled in a sweeping fashion with amazing sensuality and thematic introspection.

The Humoresque Scherzo for Four Bassoons was upbeat, interesting, and all too brief. Sometimes the music called for harmony and sometimes for unified sound. I have never before heard music for a quartet of bassoons, and this was quite enjoyable. This concert had a lovely, informal feel, which was a good thing, considering the enormity of the program and the dark tonalities, inherent in some of the pieces. Prior to the Quartet for Strings No. 1 in B Minor, one could hear the strings being tuned offstage.

This piece, which was premiered at the US Library of Congress in 1931, had a soulful Andante movement, which seemed, as did the first two movements, to fuse balletic and abstract themes. These musicians, from Orion String Quartet, were well in touch with each other's timing and very personable as performers. In their performance of Quartet for Strings No. 2 in F Major, I heard a rural and rustic theme, with sounds similar to bagpipes. There were lovely, blended passages with elongated and extended chords. I also sensed a marching timbre with ethnic resemblances. Timothy Eddy's cello was more prominent in this second Quartet, and the Phillips brothers were again superb, poised, and well pronounced on their violins. Steven Tenenbom's viola took some leads with the later, dark, atonal rhythms.

The Sonata for Unison Violins in D Major brought the brothers, Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, back onstage with the renowned sisters, Ani Kavafian and Ida Kavafian. This quartet of violinists seemed to thoroughly enjoy each other's company and played this piece with all its sharpness and contrasts in perfect pitch and timing. At times this Sonata was essentially emotional, and, at other times, it was racing with fiery intentions. The final Con brio movement sped through many transformations and ended on a perfectly single note. The exceptional talent of these violinists shone brightly.

The Overture on Hebrew Themes for Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano finally brought David Shifrin, Artistic Director of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, onto the stage. Mr. Shifrin, like Mr. Sherry, is seasoned and a monumental stage presence. His clarinet was the lead instrument in this ethnic piece, which was created by Prokofiev for some friends to help raise funds for a new Conservatory in Israel. It was reminiscent of Jewish High Holiday chants and songs and evoked visual images of Holocaust art and photography. In contrast to the deeper and disturbing tones, were the dancing, Sephardic passages, exchanged from clarinet to cello, to full ensemble. The audience was audibly moved and made their appreciation evident.

Kudos to Anne-Marie McDermott, David Shifrin, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Lincoln Center Festival 2003 for this monumental event. Although I am committed elsewhere on the second day of this Prokofiev Marathon, I wish all the musicians the best and look forward to reading reviews of its inevitable success.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at