1938 Film by Sergei Eisenstein
Score by Sergei Prokofiev
New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel, Music Director
Xian Zhang, Conductor
Meredith Arwady, Mezzo-soprano
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, Director
John Goberman, Producer
Performed at Avery Fisher Hall
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
October 20, 2006
This was one event that I have waited to experience for years. The opportunity finally arose, as the New York Philharmonic, under its rising star Conductor, Xian Zhang, collaborated with Producer, John Goberman, New York Choral Artists, and mezzo-soprano, Meredith Arwady, to present the full-length, 110 minute film, Alexander Nevsky, itself a renowned collaboration between the Latvian-born filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, and his friend, the Ukrainian-born composer, Sergei Prokofiev. Stalin had sought in the late 1930’s to instill a level of passion in Russia, as Nazi Germany loomed large. The filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, was commissioned for this venture, to create a film that told the epic surrender of the Teutonic Knights in 1242, “a terrific idea, a way to symbolize the military superiority of the Russians over the Germans…across a divide of 700 years.” Eisenstein asked Prokofiev to write the musical film score, which was completed in five months. When Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact, the award-winning film was withdrawn from theatres, until such time as Germany invaded Russia, and the film was re-introduced. (Philharmonic Program Notes).
This black-white film in Russian, subtitled, with sound track of music and dialogue, was edited to play only some of the music, while the Philharmonic performed live for the remainder of the score. The timing was incredibly perfect, with actual bells chiming in the orchestra, as bells tolled in the film. The film, itself, is remarkably poignant, and, although almost 70 years old, it remains as mesmerizing now as always, especially in times of war in the name of religion and national ego. But, the potential for political analysis would be too drawn out for this review. Suffice it to say, the audience was magnetized. In fact, the innocent humor in plot, with two soldiers, one bumbling giant and one quiet brooder, both fighting for the right of “bravest” to win the hand of the blond-braided Olga, brought much laughter to these 2006 New York sophisticates, especially when the mother of one soldier pined for a wedding, already. That wedding, and one more, in multitudinous celebration, ended the elegant and very dramatic film.
The battle scenes spread across breaking shards of ice, with horses falling and Russian peasants courageously thwarting Teutonic knights in metal helmets and armor, with but pipes, shields, and, in much of the army, only feet, no horses. One brave soldier was a valiant Russian woman, who was awarded, in marriage, one of the competitive soldiers, the one who lost Olga. Nikolai Cherkassov, as Prince Alexander Nevsky, the strong, quiet, and all-knowing leader of the conquering Russian army, would be quite a box office hit today, one of the most macho, magnetic actors I have ever seen on film. V. S. Ivasheva, as Olga, has one signature song, which was brilliantly and passionately sung tonight by Meredith Arwady, mezzo-soprano. The instantaneous orchestrations to fit each segment of the film, which could not be seen by the orchestra, as it hung over the stage, were astounding. Maestro Zhang is to be commended for such precision.
The New York Choral Artists sang the oft triumphant, oft atonal, and oft mournful music with exactness of mood and moment. Joseph Flummerfelt, Choral Director, is to be commended for this collaborative success. There is no confusion in the film about who are evil and who are righteous, and the chorus and orchestra, both, exuded just the right affect and attitude, depending on the army in showcase. Daughters pleaded for the lives of fathers, and fathers pleaded for national revenge. The plot of the film allows for some suspense and some surprise, but there are also long moments of silence. If only filmmakers today could learn from this masterpiece and create historically fascinating works, without dizzy, disturbing imagery and jarring fright and volume.
Alexander Nevsky tells of love in many forms, and one such love, love of country, seemed the most engaging. When Nevsky went from town to town, recruiting peasants and receiving battle gear, the swell of pride and generosity of spirit were palpable. As they were surrounded and outnumbered, the Russian army fought back and eventually prevailed. The massive sword battles, with the filmed sound of metal and horses, footsteps and fighting, were remarkable. Sword scenes from Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet, were, at times, musically evoked. The swell and sweep of the orchestral score blanketed this event with warmth and texture, and Maestro Zhang brought out the acoustical potential of Fisher Hall as I have never previously heard it. This was a challenging and full program, and kudos are deserved all around. Check www.lincolncenter.org for current and upcoming events at Lincoln Center, including the late fall-winter schedule for New York Philharmonic.
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