Once upon a time – about hundred years ago – Paris seemed the center of the artistic universe. Artists’ reputations were made there. Painters and poets, musicians and dancers achieved huge successes (and some spectacular failures). A number of those big artistic successes included Russian musicians.
This week’s concerts of the Spokane Symphony will feature works by two of those Russian composers, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev.
Conductor Eckart Preu will lead the orchestra at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox in Stravinsky’s suite from his ballet “The Firebird” and in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3. Preu will open the program on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon with J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3.
“Our opening concert two weeks ago included Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10,” Preu says. “And automatically, you start comparing him with Stravinsky and Prokofiev who lived at the same time. But listening to them, immediately you start noticing how different their music is – the subject matter they deal with, the way they handle the orchestra, the whole ‘feel’ of their music.
“In Shostakovich there is a kind of raw, naked emotion,” said the conductor. “While in Stravinsky, you have a kind of fairy-tale brilliance. And in Prokofiev, a weird, dramatic craziness.”
The two Russian works in this weekend’s concerts both originated as pieces for the theater. Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird” made this virtually unknown 28-year-old a world-famous composer. This was in 1910 when he was selected to compose the work for the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky promptly made an orchestral suite of some of its numbers and subsequently revised the suite twice in 1919 and 1945.
“I have conducted the 1945 version of the suite,” Preu says, “but the 1919 version is my favorite. The music of this version flows in a way that seems natural in its progression from one number to the other. In suites there is always the danger that the numbers seem stitched together in a kind of haphazard way and the drama of the work gets lost.”
Prokofiev spent nearly ten years working on an opera, “The Fiery Angel,” based on a strange, complicated novel by Valery Bryusov. No company could be convinced to mount the opera when he finished it in 1927. In fact, it was never performed complete in the composer’s lifetime. So Prokofiev decided to use some of its music as the basis of his Symphony No. 3.
“It’s not unusual to find composers creating a suite out of numbers from an opera,” Preu says. “But to make a symphony out of music from an opera – that’s rare. It raises the question, ‘How much of the meaning of the opera’s story does the music still have after it has been turned into a symphony?’
“The story of this opera is very weird, quite brutal at times, and this really shows up in the music. This symphony has a most incredibly virtuosic violin part and it uses masses of low brass and percussion. I am very excited to conduct this symphony; it’s been a real discovery for me,” the conductor says.
This weekend’s performances will be the first time the Spokane Symphony has played Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3. Stravinsky’s “Firebird” suite, though, has been conducted at least once by most of the orchestra’s seven music directors.
Preu is opening the concerts with Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3.
“We try to have some theme connecting the works on our programs,” Preu says. “I could make up something to show how Bach is connected to Stravinsky and Prokofiev, but that would be too far-fetched. So the Bach is a palate cleanser that will prepare the audience – and those of us on stage – into what follows.”
Conductor Eckart Preu will discuss the music on the weekend’s concerts in a pre-concert talk beginning one hour before performance time.