Dukas, Dorman, and Prokofiev

Really terrific concert last night at Davies, David Robertson conducting Dukas’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice and Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and First Symphony, the Classical, along with the first public performance ever of a new piece, Uriah: The Man the King Wanted Dead, by a young Israeli composer named Avner Dorman. Tickets had been discounted so I went online the night before and bought the pair of seats in the very center of the very last row of the last balcony, Dave’s favorite place to sit. (In most concert halls, Davies included, the sound is best in the back of the last balcony.)

Dave and I had just heard MTT conduct The Sorceror’s Apprentice maybe six months ago, but it’s always a treat to hear it — there’s always a difference between hearing a piece on a recording and hearing it live, but with Sorceror it seems almost like hearing a different piece that happens to use the same melodies. And it was interesting to hear it played by the same orchestra but under a different conductor with a different take on the piece. Both were delightful in different ways; it was brighter and brisker and more of a showpiece under MTT, and there was more irony and earthy humor under Robertson. At times Robertson’s tempi seemed plodding compared to what I’m used to hearing, but the very choice of a plodding tempo in those places was itself a wonderful bit of scene painting and made me chuckle more than once.

I don’t really know the violin concerto, but Dave tells me it’s usually performed as a fiery, virtuoso showpiece (which I expect is exactly how Prokofiev intended it). Under Robertson, though, it sounded light as chamber music or a baroque concerto. Leonidas Kavakos was the soloist, and his playing was terrific, graceful and understated, never calling attention to his technique or the difficulty of the music. The whole thing was irresistible. Dave’s heard the piece many times and he told me during the intermission that he’d never heard it played that way, and that he liked Robertson because he always seemed to have a fresh take on even a familiar piece and could make you think about it in a new way. (Little did we realize there was one more such, and a jaw-dropper at that, to come.)

After the intermission came Uriah, a tone poem in five sections. I’m not musical enough to venture much of an opinion after a single listening, but I liked it and would like to hear it again sometime. The first movement is powerful and fierce, representing (according to the composer’s short talk before the piece, assuming I’m remembering it correctly) God’s anger at King David, who arranged for Uriah to be abandoned by his own men in battle so that David could marry Uriah’s beautiful wife; the second movement is slower and somewhat melancholy, representing Uriah’s thoughts and feelings on the morning of the coming battle; the third is a “presto barbaro” representing the battle and ending with Uriah’s death; the fourth is gentle and lyrical and represents the angels whom the composer hopes attended Uriah and guided him into heaven (2 Samuel is silent on this point, however); the final movement is a short epilogue repeating themes from the first movement.

Last was the Classical Symphony, which is usually played as a relentless snarkfest of mockery, and which I usually find pretty tiresome — a very clever music student’s prank, sure, and lots of fun the first two or three times I heard it, but since then I have felt like, OK, I get the point already and now I’d rather hear something else — like maybe one of the symphonies by Haydn or Mozart that Prokofiev was parodying, which stand up to repeated listening many times better than the Classical, but which nevertheless get programmed far, far less often. (I am a great lover of Prokofiev’s music, by the way, including all his other symphonies. It’s just his first one I don’t like all that much. But that’s the one that gets performed over and over and over again.)

Well, Robertson played the Classical as though it were one of those symphonies by Haydn or Mozart — the texture was light and transparent, the tempi were lively without being frenetic, the wit didn’t sound sneering, the lyrical sections were allowed to be sincerely and unsnarkily lyrical, and I heard all kinds of subtleties in the music I’d never heard before. Wow. It was wonderful and astonishing and ear-opening and probably the complete opposite of what Prokofiev meant it to sound like. I said to Dave afterward that I thought we’d just heard the first performance of the Classical Symphony ever to be informed by period performance style.

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