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Prokofiev: A Tribute to Man's Mighty Powers

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Sergei Prokofiev Sergei Prokofiev

The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev has been in and out of fashion in Western musical circles for decades, but for now he is definitely IN. The Austin Symphony Orchestra is offering a rousing rendition of his famous Symphony No. 5 this weekend.


Prokofiev, who died in 1953, is being portrayed live on stage during the first half of the multimedia event, in a production created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Conceived in 2005, they have now created 30 so-called 'Beyond the Score' presentations that give the audience a cultural and musical background to some of the world's most iconic scores.


Here Yevgeniy Sharlat spoke the words of Prokofiev. He was joined on stage by Robert Faires as the narrator, Barbara Chisholm as the composer's wife, and David Long who represented several composers. The symphony joined in by performing brief excerpts of his major compositions, as a chronological survey of his life was shown on a big screen. His peripatetic life as a composer and pianist, from Russia to the United States, on to France , back to the U.S. and finally returning to Russia, is given as a welcome textural background to his work.


In the dialogue, Prokofiev describes his Symphony No. 5 as a tribute to man's mighty powers, and this Promethean inspiration is expressed in music that brings to mind roiling magma. Each burst of a lava bubble is marked by the clashing of cymbals in the first movement.


The second movement is quite different, redolent of a busy metropolis filled with streetcars and pedestrians. The frenetic pace of city life may not have been what the composer intended, but it would make a good soundtrack to a silent film about New York City in the 20s.


The third movement most closely conforms to what Soviet officialdom demanded from its composers in the 1940s. It has a searching quality to it, expressing lost innocence: not surprising as the Motherland was still battling Nazi forces as Prokofiev wrote this in the winter of 1943-44. It is not a plaintive melody so much as a soul-searching attempt at redemption which seems to be fulfilled in a sweet and tender ending.


The fourth and final movement has a sprightly, almost Carnivalesque exuberance. It reminds one of music from his 1921 opera The Love for Three Oranges with its “charming capriciousness” in the words of legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht.


One of the touchstone recordings of the 5th is by Leonard Bernstein. The tempo by the Austin Symphony was too fast in comparison, thus minimising the full dramatic effect Bernstein achieved, especially in the 3rd movement. Nonetheless an excellent introduction to this great symphony for the Austin scene.


The Austin Symphony will be giving Bernstein a great birthday present next year, to celebrate his centennial. His Mass will be performed June 29 and June 30, preceded by a suite of free events for the public who can learn about this extraordinary musical extravaganza. It begins with a 100th birthday bash at the Bullock Museum on Jan. 7, 2018. Visit the website for details:

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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