A Grand Soviet Symphony, By Way Of Brazil

Jul 21, 2012
Originally published on July 21, 2012 8:08 am

People keep asking me why I recorded Sergei Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony for my first CD release in my new post leading the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. The simple answer is that it just felt right. But in thinking about it, I can now see many parallels — at least for me — between Prokofiev's music, the city of Sao Paulo and the country of Brazil.

Sergei Prokofiev consistently bucked the prevailing trends, both musically and personally. As artists were fleeing the Soviet Union in the 1930's, Prokofiev did the opposite and moved back to his homeland. A couple decades earlier, when composers gravitated towards massive tone poems, Prokofiev offered a light-hearted symphony (his First) just 15 minutes long, modeled after Haydn.

I have always admired that maverick quality in Prokofiev and it's the kind of approach that perfectly captures the essence of what drew me to Brazil. Brazil is a country of massive contradictions, yet it is entirely genuine; a country that embraces and celebrates its diversity, a country that marches to its own drummer, making no concessions to anyone.

Today, Sao Paulo is routinely listed as the world's third largest city. It's not one of outward beauty, to say the least, but there are sudden, breathtaking moments of exquisite beauty that come out of nowhere and feel overwhelming. Just like Prokofiev's sweeping Fifth Symphony.

There's an edginess and angularity in Prokofiev that can dissolve instantly with the appearance of a sudden beautiful melody or unexpected harmonic turn. In Sao Paulo, a city of hard concrete and steel, wounded with the tattoos of graffiti, you turn a corner and run into a stunning building by Niemeyer.

The slow movement of the Fifth Symphony is the ultimate balancing act. A suspended high melody, offset by an accompaniment in lowest instruments of the orchestra, passes precariously from one section to the other, creating an exquisite fragility, opening a window into Prokofiev's soul.

There's nothing fragile about Sao Paulo's manic energy, which can border on demonic, especially following a soccer game. It's the type of energy that fuels Prokofiev's second movement — driven and possessed, like a city that never sleeps.

But Sao Paulo is also a city of poets. Everyone I meet has a hidden talent and a passionate love of life. Everyone is hungry to connect and eager to share.

It feels completely natural for me to record this music with my newfound friends in Sao Paulo. I hope you enjoy meeting them, at least on CD.

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What's the fascination many composers seem to have with fifth symphonies? Ever since Beethoven and those four famous notes - duh-duh-duh-dum - composers have seemed to strive for monumental fifth symphonies. A new recording by the Sao Paolo Symphony features Symphony No. 5 by Sergey Prokofiev.


SIMON: The symphony is led by its newly appointed principal conductor, and, of course, our friend here on WEEKEND EDITION, Marin Alsop, also music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She joins us from the studios of the BBC in Sao Paolo. Nice to talk to you again, maestra.

MARIN ALSOP: Nice to talk to you, too.

SIMON: Before we talk about Prokofiev, how did you end up working with this wonderful group of musicians in Sao Paolo?

ALSOP: You know, about two years ago, I came and guest conducted for a week and fell in love with the orchestra, the most beautiful concert hall in the world and incredible management team and enthusiastic public. And it just felt like a dream come true.

SIMON: That's wonderful. Well, let's talk about Prokofiev and try to put his fifth Symphony into context.

ALSOP: Well, as you said in your introduction, fifth symphonies seem to be enormous turning points for so many composers. I mean, Beethoven sort of set the standard. But then you think of Mahler, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. This is a monumental change in his whole output. He was born in 1891 in the Ukraine and was somewhat of a doted-on young child and sort of the apple of his parents' eye. He was basically a spoiled brat, I would say.


ALSOP: And, you know, he carried that through. He was known as kind of the bad boy, misbehaved, arrogant young man. He was the youngest student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He entered at the age of 13. And when he was a young man in his 20s, he wrote a symphony, his first symphony. And it's kind of a cheeky, you know, sort of thumbing his nose at the symphonies of Haydn.


SIMON: This is a tongue-in-cheek exercise almost.

ALSOP: Absolutely. And, of course, it garnered him terrific attention but also a reputation for being a bit of a rebel and doing the opposite of what everyone else was doing. And that became a hallmark of his entire career. But when you look just a couple decades later toward this fifth symphony, there's a complete change. I mean, you still hear this kind of maverick quality about his work, but the context is so different by the time he arrives at his fifth symphony.


SIMON: Marin, that sounds like the music we'll be hearing at the end of the world.

ALSOP: It does, doesn't it? It's an epic gesture. I mean, this is a major symphony that has depth and gravitas. And it really is predicting the future in many, many ways. And, of course, it was written at a momentous time in history in 1944. When it was premiered in 1945, Prokofiev conducted it himself, which was highly unusual for him. He rarely conducted. But at this premiere, he had to stop because the audience could hear the artillery firing, celebrating the victory over the Nazis. So, you can imagine how emotional this was.

SIMON: And yet I gather it has a much quieter, lighter opening.

ALSOP: Well, this is also a hallmark of Prokofiev's music, this enormous emotional range. This symphony begins in a very intimate, simple way - unison winds at the very opening.


SIMON: Now, hearing that and knowing when Prokofiev conducted this in Moscow, somehow in my mind it's fitting into the time, the three or four winters of war, which the Russians had been through, in which they had barely survived, in which almost every Russian family, Soviet family have lost someone that they loved. And yet at the same time, there must have been a feeling of victory and renewal.

ALSOP: Yeah. I think you can hear the melancholy, the nostalgia, the sense of loss, but also there's a thread of hope through everything. And, you know, Prokofiev was a fascinating character because he always marched to his own drumbeat. When everyone was really leaving the Soviet Union, Prokofiev decided to go back because he missed the kind of adulation he had as a child. And he was hoping to rekindle that almost unconditional love he lost, you know, when he left his parental home. And so he's one of the few artists that goes back to the country and really invests in being a Soviet citizen.


ALSOP: Of course, when he went back to the Soviet Union, things weren't nearly as idyllic as he had anticipated. And the conditions were terrible. You know, friends and colleagues disappeared overnight. And so there's a biting irony and sarcasm that you can hear in his music, particularly in the second movement of this symphony.


ALSOP: But, of course, with Prokofiev, nothing is straightforward. And from this ironic quality emerges this almost sense of nobility and it just comes out of nowhere.


ALSOP: But it's important to know that Prokofiev never really outgrew that spoiled brat quality and being very childlike. I mean, how many people write the greatest piece for kids when they're nearly 50 years old, which is what he did with "Peter and the Wolf." And throughout the symphony, you can hear this mischievous side to Prokofiev.


SIMON: You're flabbergasted just by sitting here and listening to this all at a stretch; the number of moods he's able to create.

ALSOP: Yes, it's amazing, isn't it? That sounds like just a raucous party suddenly broke out in the middle of this monumental fifth symphony.


SIMON: And the way he changes melodies.

ALSOP: You know, this is also a hallmark of Prokofiev's music. He was able to write absolutely gorgeous melodies. They're unexpected because they're often scored for very high and very low instruments simultaneously. But if you listen to the melody itself, it's quite stunning, particularly in the slow movement of this symphony.


SIMON: So, Marin, after in the audience we've been to the abyss, to the top of the mountain, the clowns have come out of the Volkswagen and we've been in the clouds, what does he do for the final movement?

ALSOP: Well, it's absolutely brilliant, as you can well imagine. Prokofiev is now going to bring together all of these disparate emotions, moods, melodies, structures. So, he opens the finale with this very, very quiet opening again.


ALSOP: But, of course, you know, mischief is not far away and most of the last movement is just a playful romp.


SIMON: Now, I hear you're going to be recording the entire set of Prokofiev's symphonies with Sao Paolo, right, for Naxos?

ALSOP: Yes. We spent today working on the second CD, so we're well underway now.

SIMON: Why did you start with the fifth?

ALSOP: Well, it was a bit of a bold move in a way because it's the - I mean, the fifth and the 1st are probably the best-known of his symphonies. But I felt that it would be great to just come out of the box, you know, swinging. And I think the orchestra sounds fantastic and did a great job.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, principal conductor of the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra, music conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, the Cabrillo Music Festival and gosh knows what else - noted swing musician - joining us from the studios of the BBC Brazil. Maestra, thanks so much.

ALSOP: Great to talk to you.


SIMON: And you can hear more of Prokofiev's fifth and read Maestra Alsop's essay on the symphony at our website, nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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