BSO gives forceful support to classic film

D.C. Choral Society enhances `Nevsky'


November 14, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Movie-making has advanced considerably since Sergei Eisenstein made his pro-Russian, anti-German (and anti-any other trespasser) Alexander Nevsky in 1938. Propaganda has gotten a lot slicker, too. But there's still something fresh about that film, with its frantic battle scenes, touches of humor and celebrations of self-sacrifice giving life to this tale of the 13th century hero who saved the motherland from a Teutonic horde. It has never lost the air of a classic, thanks in no small measure to the music written for it by Sergei Prokofiev.

In 1995, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra accompanied a showing of Alexander Nevsky (David Lockington conducted on that occasion). Last night, this multi-sensory attraction returned to Meyerhoff Hall. BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov, making his first appearance this season, led the orchestra and Choral Arts Society of Washington with his customary authority in a (mostly) well-synchronized performance as the movie played on a large screen that hung above a stage.

The conductor, who coincidentally, was born nine days after the film premiered in Russia, has this music in his blood. He is fully alert to its brilliant variety of coloring, its emotions. Temirkanov knows the score's worth and can communicate it potently, something he did years ago in an excellent recording and which he did again here.

Since Nevsky is a talkie, it doesn't make as ideal a candidate for live orchestral accompaniment as a silent film does; there's a good deal of stop-and-start to accommodate dialogue scenes. But there's still something extra engaging about getting the live blast of music.

After a slow-paced start, the movie develops a steady pulse. Characters are quickly introduced and identified as good or evil. Some, like the quintessential jovial jock-type who makes a pre-battle bid for the affections of the cutest Russian peasant girl, or the incredibly creepy prelate of the Holy Roman Empire who thirsts for fresh heathens to slaughter, leave a long-lasting impression. And the cinematography provides continual pleasure. Many scenes are composed with painterly breadth. The famous Battle on the Ice sequence hasn't lost a bit of its visual drama.

The music for that combat, which contains some of Prokofiev's most prismatic writing, emerged with particular force under Temirkanov's guidance. The violas sliced into their intense notes at the start with a terrific edge. The brass and percussion sections blazed away.

Prokofiev used human voices in the score as effectively as instruments, underlining the Germans' threat with grotesque distortions of Latin chant and the Russians' patriotism with stirring ballads and anthems. Fulfilling that part of the performance was the Choral Arts Society of Washington, founded and directed by Norman Scribner. It has long been a gem in that city's cultural life, and you could hear why last night. Filling up several balconies surrounding the stage, the singers offered an exceptionally cohesive sound, along with clarity of articulation and responsiveness to each text.

One solo voice is called for in the film to accompany the post-battle scene of women searching among the dead and wounded. Nancy Maultsby, entering from backstage with a stately gait that perfectly matched the solemnity of that scene, proceeded to sing the lament with uncommon tonal richness and poignancy of expression.

If you miss tonight's repeat, you can hear the cantata version of Alexander Nevsky (performed without the film) when Temirkanov and the BSO team up with the Choral Arts Society in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington on Tuesday night. Norman Scribner will conduct the rest of the program, which includes Brahms' Alto Rhapsody with Maultsby as soloist. For ticket information, call 202-244-3669.


Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight

Tickets: $27 to $75

Call: 410-783-8000

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