A 21st-Century Prokofiev Echoes Life In The City

Ludovic Morlot conducts the premiere of <a href=
Music director Ludovic Morlot conducts the premiere of Gabriel Prokofiev’s ‘When the City Rules.’
(Concert photos courtesy of Seattle Symphony)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE — How many “young” contemporary composers relish being compared to their more famous relatives? I’d wager there aren’t many. Certainly Samuel Adams, 30, has managed to acquit himself quite well while sharing the same program with his famous father, John. But in the case of U.K. resident Gabriel Prokofiev, 41, sharing the program with his late grandfather, Sergei, may not be a great idea.

Gabriel Prokofiev onstage with Morlot after the premiere.
Gabriel Prokofiev with Morlot and the Seattle Symphony after the premiere.

Certainly Gabriel’s involvement in electro-acoustic music, which has included electro, grime, and his ongoing Nonclassical Remix series, which remixes contemporary classical works, sets him apart from his granddad. Nonetheless, when it comes to a purely classical, non-electronic work such as When the City Rules, which had its Seattle Symphony world premiere under music director Ludovic Morlot in Benaroya Hall on Sept. 22, Grandson’s work paled in the shadow of Granddad’s brilliantly scored The Love for Three Oranges symphonic suite. Nor did it help Gabriel’s case that his premiere was sandwiched between Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 8.

In Paul Schiavo’s program notes for the premiere, Gabriel Prokofiev described his 29-minute piece, co-commissioned by Seattle Symphony and Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla, as “a symphonic fantasy/exploration of life in the 21st-century city.” He views the symphony orchestra as a metaphor for modern city life, “on the one hand representing the many different characters in an urban community” who share their “personal stories, hopes and frustrations,” and “on the other the power machinations of a mega-city itself.”

Ludovic Morlot and Gabriel Prokofiev.
Ludovic Morlot and Gabriel Prokofiev.

In his charming pre-premiere onstage preface, Prokofiev offered that the opening of his four-movement work looks back to the voices of the city past, which he called the “ghosts.” Then, he said, the piece moves forward into the modern city, with all of its inexorable expansion and craziness, before ending with a celebration of its sometimes overwhelming energy.

As announced, the piece began ghost-like and eerie, with music reminiscent of creaky skeletons emerging from the ether. Immediately the percussion section came to the fore, with wire brushes on cymbals paving the way for a lumbering march in which strong percussion, including drums (snare, bass and drum set), tuned gongs, temple blocks and xylophone, vied for attention with tuba, piano, and drums.

Prokofiev’s percussion section, which also included triangle, a second set of cymbals, thunder sheet, tambourine, whip, hammer, tam tam, tuned gongs, crotales, and temple blocks, contributed much color and excitement. The xylophone was given quite the workout, its harshness delivering an impactful measure of urban brutality. (Note that instrumentation lists are inexcusably absent from Seattle Symphony’s program notes.)

Despite impressive percussion and a lot of instrumental color, the orchestra seemed unable to convey a defining compositional voice in the way that the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony can so clearly express the unique style of Bernstein and Copland. While color contrasts were always compelling, the Seattle Symphony seemed challenged to sustain tension in the work’s slow passages. It was as though Morlot and his players had failed to find the emotional and spiritual center of the piece.

Sergei Prokofiev before coming to the United States.
Sergei Prokofiev before coming to the United States.

But perhaps that wasn’t their fault. The crazed march ending GP’s first movement brought to mind the madness of Granddad Sergei’s music in The Love for Three Oranges. The second movement made beautiful use of the triangle, but its syncopated dance rhythms sounded a little too Bolero-ish for comfort.

As the piece progressed, Gabriel’s language for the noise of the fast-paced city evoked memories of Gershwin, but without the idiomatic snap. Similarly, the final movement, which began with a Rondo brilliante, had a Latin feel that echoed Bernstein’s West Side Story, but without its irresistible energy. (I kept expecting to hear the players shout out, “Mambo!”) Despite an intentionally mechanical interplay between flute and piccolo that was quite exciting, the repetitive closing never really seemed to take off. I left unconvinced that GP has as yet found his voice.

Similar problems of interpretation plagued The Love for Three Oranges, which began raucously, with fabulous color contrasts. The work’s silly little mechanical march sounded ridiculously droll, and passages that were meant to be ominous and rousing were delicious. But partially due to the acoustic of Benaroya Hall, the full range of colors that distinguish Sergei Prokofiev’s music was absent.

The deficiencies of the hall’s acoustic must be addressed. While there is no question that Seattle Symphony recording engineer Dmitriy Lipay has found ways to showcase the orchestra to best advantage – their recordings of Dutilleux and Mahler sound superb, especially in high-resolution digital format – in performance in the hall itself, strings, winds, and percussion tend to take on a brittle and dismayingly clattery quality when played loudly.

The Seattle Symphony performing in Benaroya Hall under Morlot.
The Seattle Symphony performing in Benaroya Hall under Morlot.

On this particular occasion, I took advantage of the intermission between the two Prokofiev works to move from a center aisle seat in orchestra row N to the corresponding seat in row J. The switch confirmed that, in Benaroya’s orchestra seats, the orchestra sounds best close up. The farther back you move, the more colors tend to homogenize, and noisiness replaces brilliance on fortes. The brilliant color display heard from the San Francisco Symphony in a good orchestra seat in Davies Hall is absent from the Seattle Symphony in Benaroya.

All this affected the performance of the two Beethoven symphonies. Morlot conveys grace beautifully – the opening of Symphony No. 1 was winning – and his light and lovely finale was a joy. But the music’s frequent repetitions lacked interest, and softer passages were not compelling.

The opening of Symphony No. 8, marked Allegro vivace e con brio, sometimes lacked brio. As the symphony progressed, Morlot’s ability to shape phrases again came to the fore, but a lack of tension in key passages rendered the overall experience less than gripping. The start of the final Allegro vivace simply burst with joy – it was wonderful – but when Morlot pulled back, the orchestra could not sustain interest.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.