On Saturday night the first words out of my mouth after the final note of the excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s epic ballet Romeo and Juliet had sounded were “Jesus Christ.” Guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto had led our fine local band through a concert that was, to me, a tale of two halves. The opening half was OK – a decent performance of Silvestre Revueltas’ Redes suite and a pleasant though perhaps character-deficient reading of the beautiful Concierto de Aranjuez – but the return from intermission brought with it a deadly combination of music and players that were made for each other. Prieto’s conducting was straightforward and wonderfully uncomplicated, the band’s greatest strengths were highlighted, and, most importantly, Prokofiev is really good at music.
It’s that last one that got me thinking as the rest of the weekend wore on. It had been awhile since I had listened to Prokofiev, and it had been even longer since I had heard his music in concert (in fact, it was probably the concert here a few years ago when Gil Shaham played the second concerto). As I was reminded of just how much of a bad ass he is, I thought it might be appropriate to share the five recurring thoughts that have been kicking around the infinite void that is my brain.
1) The only composer who can challenge Prokofiev’s ability to play with our sense of tonality is Haydn
Obviously all of the greatest composers have mastered tonality and how to manipulate it, whether it’s Wagner’s enharmonic modulations or the first movement of Mahler 7, but Prokofiev shares with Haydn that rare ability to somehow make everything sound so simple yet just off-kilter enough to make you go “I wonder what that would look like under the microscope of a harmonic analysis.” You combine these harmonies with liberal use of color notes and a massively underrated ability to craft a melody, and you realize why Prokofiev is as popular as he is. And then you remember that he’s not as popular as his contemporary (Shostakovich) and the comparison to Haydn finds a completely arbitrary and needless endpoint! And then you remember that I didn’t even mention the Classical Symphony, which was written in the style which Haydn would have composed had he been alive in 1917 according to the guy who actually wrote the thing!
2) Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet defeats every other Romeo and Juliet, and probably every other thing about star-crossed lovers that isn’t Tristan for that matter
With no apologies to Tchaikovsky, Berlioz (OK, a quick apology to Berlioz), Gounod, Bellini, and Delius, Prokofiev’s score easily laps the field. I’ll even throw Bernstein on that list to include the play’s most famous adaptation. I’m not sure it can complete with Tristan, but I’m not so sure that any work of art ever done by a human being that isn’t Tristan can complete with Tristan. Regardless, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is undeniably the shit and I’m pretty sure that somewhere Bill Shakespeare is nodding his approval.
3) I wonder what social media would have been like on the day that Prokofiev (and that other guy who died the same day) died
I love Twitter and the internet and Craiglist bangs and furry porn and writing this blog as much as we all do, but social media and the 24-hour news cycle and all that shit is, let’s face it, one of the worst things human beings ever did to themselves that didn’t involve weapons of war or racism/sexism/classism. And yet I think that had this God-forsaken hellscape of an information age existed on 5 May 1953 we’d have at least heard a little something about one of the great artists of their day dying. Prokofiev’s death was obscured by that of Joseph Stalin in ways that are almost incomprehensible to us today. To carry it forward to the now-times, what would happen if, say, Barack Obama (the current leader) and Aretha Franklin (a well-respected musician with a long and distinguished career) died? I don’t know the answer, but that won’t stop me from thinking about it an unnecessary amount of time.
4) There’s a lot of music out there that rocks pretty fucking hard, but the end of the “Death of Tybalt” rocks the pretty fucking hardest
Chunk, ch-ch-ch-ch chunk, ch chunk, ch chunk, ch-ch-ch-ch-chunk, ch-chunk, ch-chunk. That shit would make John Bonham proud.
5) Why don’t I know more Prokofiev than I do?
What I know very well: the Classical, Alexander Nevsky, Romeo and Juliet Suites, Peter and the Wolf, The Meeting of the Volga and the Don
What I know pretty well: the Fifth, Lieutenant Kije Suite, Love for Three Oranges Suite, the 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos
What I barely know: the Sinfonia Concertante, the 2nd Violin Concerto, Scythian Suite, Ivan the Terrible, Cinderella
I have no idea how this could have happened, but help. Particular works, performances, whatever that I should know and don’t, say so below. Because the more you know, you know? Sharing is caring. This is your brain on drugs. I learned it by watching you.