This weekend’s Symphony Classics concert, the first of 2017, is titled “American Voices,” and it features the work of such luminaries as Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. So why, then, is the most prominent piece on the program a concerto penned by a Russian-born composer?
That composition is Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, which was written and premiered in 1935. Eckart Preu, the symphony’s conductor and music director, said this weekend’s program was initially going to follow a “war and peace” theme, but so many American composers were added to the mix that its title was eventually changed.
“I want to put (composers) together who were contemporaries but aren’t usually put together,” Preu said. “I think they will illuminate each other. … There are interesting commonalities that will emerge as people are listening.”
Each of the pieces, Preu said, often deviate from their composer’s typical styles, and they’re all, in one way or another, commenting on politics and culture: Composer John Adams’ work, for example, often references such controversial figures as Richard Nixon and Robert Oppenheimer, while Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha,” a detour from his famous ragtime songs, deals with education in black communities.
Still, Prokofiev’s presence is notable, especially in a collection of pieces that has “American” in its title.
“I left it in there because it’s beautiful music,” Preu said, “and it has the connection (with the other pieces) in terms of the politics.”
Preu is, of course, referring to the upheaval that Russia experienced in the early 20th century. This particular concerto was actually written while Prokofiev was living in the States – he left his homeland in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution – and the piece is filled with musical allusions to the folk songs of the country he fled. Prokofiev would have been on tour when he composed it, a nomadic period that no doubt fueled the wistfulness of the piece.
Mateusz Wolski, the symphony’s concertmaster, will perform the violin concerto at this weekend’s concerts. He says it’s a piece he’s been wanting to play in a live setting for some time.
“It takes an enormous amount of preparation,” Wolski said. “This is one of those wonderful, beautiful pieces that requires some commitment, for sure. In my mind, when I chose that piece, it was definitely worth it.”
Because the difficulty level is so high, Wolski will be sitting out the rest of the program, which has allowed him to focus on the nuances of Prokofiev’s composition.
“It’s quite a challenge for anyone that undertakes it,” Wolski said. “It has interesting bits that are a little eerie sounding, but they don’t stray so far that you feel like you’re listening to some abstract art. The orchestration is just fabulous. … This is really a work that was designed as a dialogue between the violin and the orchestra.”
“I think it’s going to be a really fun program,” Preu added. “It’s difficult for us because it’s so rhythmically driven, but there are phenomenal sounds left and right. There’s basically no boring moment anywhere in sight.”
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