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January 12, 2013

BSO presents 'Alexander Nevsky' with live soundtrack

Nothing like slaughter, slander and noxious nationalism to get the music season back into gear after the holidays.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has a cinematic theme woven through its programming this season, is offering a potent multimedia presentation of the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein masterwork “Alexander Nevsky” this weekend. A Charlie Chaplin movie and the 1950s musical “West Side Story” are due later on, in each case with the orchestra providing a live soundtrack as the film is shown on a large screen hanging above the stage.

“Nevsky” makes a particularly strong candidate for this sort of approach, given that it boasts a stirring, brilliantly atmospheric score by Sergei Prokofiev. The composer’s concert suite from that score is frequently encountered; hearing the original version in context is a terrific experience.

The BSO offered a memorable “Nevsky” in this format a decade ago with then-music director Yuri Temirkanov on the podium. His successor, Marin Alsop, is on the podium this time. She ...

doesn’t summon the extra emotional depth from the score that Temirkanov could, but, as evidenced Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, she knows how to unleash a good deal of its expressive force.

Alsop is quite the pro at this sort of project. Her precision with cues ensured effortless syncing with the imagery. And what extraordinary imagery it is.

A thinly disguised salute to Stalin, the movie celebrates the 13th-century Russian hero who defeated an invasion by Germany’s Teutonic Knights. Given the growing threat of another German invasion at the time filming was done, Eisenstein’s depiction of the supremely confident Nevsky could not help but prove popular at home — until that little matter of the short-lived Stalin-Hitler pact.

(Seeing “Alexander Nevsky” takes on added impact today, when another Russian ruler seems intent on developing a personality cult and pumping up national pride.) If Nikolai Cherkasov, as Nevsky, is terribly stiff and preening, his performance has the stamp of authority. The actor, after all, was a Communist Party big shot who sat on the Supreme Soviet.

The propagandistic nature of the movie is never far from the surface, but Eisenstein knew how to turn blatant messages into art, sometimes chilling art. The depictions of German atrocities, right down to tossing babies into a fire, are masterfully filmed and remain tough to watch, especially considering that the world of 1938 wasn’t really so advanced over that of the 1200s (see Nanking, Rape of).

Just the thick Teutonic helmets alone, with their tiny eye-slits, have a spooky power, which the film director exploits cannily throughout. Same for the sight of the ruthless churchmen presiding over the German forces — Prokofiev creates a menacing twist on Gregorian chant to give them a musical motive.

The Battle on the Ice, Nevsky’s brilliant tactical move to defeat the heavily armored Germans, generates both a cinematic and musical tour de force.

This passage, which takes up nearly half of the film and seems to involves a zillion extras, is all the more visually intriguing considering that it was filmed in the summertime, with a concoction of asphalt, glass and sand to suggests ice and snow.

Prokofiev produced highly pictorial material to go with the battle, but, tellingly, there are several minutes when the music stops, leaving only sounds of combat to create an awful percussion.

It was satisfying to hear the BSO deliver the complete score so vividly Friday night. The brass and winds served up the ominous bad-guy music with great tonal weight, aided by the tight percussion section. The strings produced a rich palette of tone colors and achieved great poignancy in the mournful, post-battle scene.

That scene inspired Prokofiev’s most haunting music, with a mezzo-soprano intoning a song called “On the Field of the Dead.” Standing in a balcony above the orchestra, Irina Tchistjakova delivered that solo superbly, each line sculpted with an affecting warmth.

Prokofiev wrote a major role for chorus in the film score, a role handled with admirable poise, tonal richness and vibrant phrasing by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. The effect of the chorus and orchestra at full throttle in the closing moments of the film proved particularly impressive.

One technical note. Seems to me that the screen at Meyerhoff could have been better positioned to allow people sitting near the front to see the movie more easily.

Also seems to me that, by now, some audio whiz somewhere should be able to enhance the sound of dialogue and combat on the original soundtrack. As it is now (and was in 2003 when the BSO presented "Nevsky"), there is a glaring, disorienting discrepancy between the visceral impact when the orchestra is firing away and the tiny, tinny audio level of film.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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