What a great evening out: Romeo and Juliet with the Mariinsky and Valery Gergiev conducting. However, not a costume or piece of scenery in sight… just Gergiev with his orchestra performing the Romeo and Juliet Suite n°1, which is the one which finishes with Tybalt's death scene. The concert was part of the magnificent MiTo musical festival held in Milano (Mi) and Torino (To) every September, and this event was in the large concert hall of Milan's Giuseppe Verdi Conservatoire.
In an all Prokofiev programme, it was the suite which finished the evening and taught this listener an important lesson! Watching the orchestra, as well as listening, underlines the musical structure – ah, the timpanist is standing up let's see what he's going to do… look, the violins are preparing for a pizzicato passage… get ready for some good vibrations, the tuba player is puckering up. With an ear that was once trained to listen to such details it was a jolt to realise how lazy it has become when the orchestra's hidden in the pit and there's the distraction of movement and colour on stage.
I should know opera and ballet music better than anything else, hearing it so often, whereas even the most popular piano concerto will only come round again every few years. The experience was akin to cleaning your sunglasses on a boat and realising how much the marks from salt spray had diminished your vision. Prokofiev's glorious score was clean and sparkling, richer and more exciting.
Of course, Gergiev had a good deal to do with this, with an explosive 80-piece orchestra being led by his relatively restrained presence; hands fluttering lightly like butterflies. The fight sequence was taken at a tempo that would have driven ballet dancers insane and the balcony pas de deux was both heartbreakingly tender and passionately effervescent.
The exciting young Russian cellist Alexander Ramm – who won the silver medal at this year's Tchaikovsky Competition – joined the orchestra for Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante op. 125 and dealt deftly with a part that was considered unplayable when it was composed, with its quadruple-stopping and suicidal cadences. Although the piece underwent numerous revisions, it began life in the same period as the Romeo and Juliet ballet and, as the two compositions share some of the same motifs, it was an ideal and interesting pairing.
The earlier Symphony n°2, from the mid-‘20s, began the programme with its The Rite of Spring percussive pulsing rhythms and an arrogant insistence though never pompous or nationalistic. After the relentless bluster and bravado of the ten-minute first movement, comes the shock of a tranquilly meandering theme, all the more effective after the tidal wave of orchestral power just heard. The six variations which follow show Prokofiev exploring every possible shade of his orchestral palette, before concluding, quietly, with the main theme once again.
After several years at university pretending I understood – though not loved – contemporary music, it took me several years to realise that often the king was nude, yet we'd all been praising his finery. I like tunes. They don't have to be Puccini-type tunes or Gershwin-type tunes; they can be melodic traces within an informal structure, like the music of Britten, Bernstein or Stravinsky. Music that is too far removed from traditional melody and harmony is worse than Frankenstein's monster, at least it had a heart. Box-office takings and cd sales suggest that the abandonment of the rules just hasn't worked. Prokofiev summed it up neatly himself,
I have used dissonance in my time, but there has been too much dissonance. Bach used dissonance as good salt for his music. Others applied pepper, seasoned the dishes more and more highly, till all healthy appetites were sick and until the music was nothing but pepper.
Prokofiev seasoned his music perfectly for my taste.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.
Yes, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is seasoned just right, a rich and tasty combination of new and old styles. I like to say the old music expresses the human soul in music, whereas the new music seeks to express the soul of music itself. In my opinion the search is fruitless for music has no inherent soul, whereas humans do.
Thank you Ted – how eloquently put.
People take for granted nowadays the availability of recordings of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” When I first fell in love with this music–after seeing MacMillan’s ballet with Fonteyn and Nureyev–I tried to find a recording. The only one available was an old Melodiya recording in poor sound. How lucky we are today to have so many different interpretations in excellent sound!