Prokofiev the Provoker

Russian Firebrand fest spotlights a radical composer

In 1991, goth rockers the Damned recorded a tribute to the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. The single, simply entitled “Prokofiev,” sounds like abattoir music, with braying guitar licks, mournful, synth-infused saxophones, and a clanging cowbell motif. It's a fitting homage to a man whose progressive approach to art and life earned him a reputation as the enfant terrible of St. Petersburg music scene. Of course Prokofiev lived in the early 20th century, when being the enfant terrible of any Russian scene could easily get you killed.

Of all of Prokofiev's works, his five piano concertos collectively provide a musical portrait of the composer's wild career. San Francisco Symphony's two-week Prokofiev Festival, Russian Firebrand, Russian Virtuoso, provides a rare opportunity to experience all five concertos as conceived by Russia's most prodigious pianists — Yefim Bronfman, Vladimor Feltsman, Mikhail Rudy, and Ilya Yakushev. The works betray deep insights into the innovator's mercurial mind. The pyrotechnic bravura of Piano Concerto No. 1 was created as a college graduation thesis when the composer was barely 20, while Piano Concerto No. 4 is a left-hand-only piece written for the Austrian-born pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who'd lost an arm in World War I.

S.F. Symphony's eclectic program also demonstrates Prokofiev's impressive influence on other genres. Audience members attending the Festival's “Radical Populist” concerts might recognize snatches of death metal band Necrophagist's “Only Ash Remains.” The orchestra's performance of scenes from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet may suggest elements from prog icons Emerson, Lake & Palmer's 1992 album Black Moon. Meanwhile, the “Films, Frenzies, Fairytales” events bring Sting to mind. The Police-man incorporated a theme from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite in his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. If the composer's effect over the pop canon continues like this, it won't be long before Prokofiev is referred to as one of the greatest Russian crossover artists.

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