Nurturing a Prokofiev foundling

Joby Burgess, soloist for a postscript by Gabriel Prokofiev, "Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra."
Joby Burgess, soloist for a postscript by Gabriel Prokofiev, "Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra." (KATHY HINDE)
Posted: February 11, 2012

PRINCETON - Recovering lost, minor works by major composers can seem a bit pathetic: If the music wasn't worth hanging on to in the first place, how great can the rewards be?

Yet the work being done on Sergei Prokofiev by Princeton University scholar Simon Morrison suggests, increasingly, that this is one composer who rewards most any hunt.

Prokofiev's 1936 collaboration with writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky in a stage adaptation of Pushkin's novel Eugene Onegin was stillborn, partly because the writer was falling out of favor with the Soviet government. Nonetheless, Prokofiev's incidental music score to the production, heard on Thursday in a semi-staged presentation played by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, is indeed musically significant, for what it is and for what it became in later works.

The Onegin score isn't entirely unknown, and has even been recorded. But the version heard at Richardson Auditorium was complete and heard in its intended context: a series of Krzhizhanovsky-adapted monologues delivered by actors in Russian. Though Prokofiev's operas show what a musical dramatist he could be, so does the hour-long Onegin score, in plainer terms - and with the perspective that comes with being attached to this familiar literary property, the story of a young country girl who falls hopelessly in love with a bored, penniless sophisticate.

Also, the classic Tchaikovsky opera version looms significantly in the background: It wasn't earthy enough for Prokofiev, who had his own brand of cosmopolitan urbanity but harbored a taste for peasant polkas that figure into this score (as well as his famous Lt. Kije Suite). But the score's most memorable aspects are its lyrical ones. Some of the best melodies reappeared, in more evolved form, in his later opera War and Peace.

The performance came with a lots of add-ons. One part of the Richardson Auditorium balcony was given over to the Princeton University Glee Club for choral moments that clearly were cut from similar cloth as Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky film score, though with a less aggressive aspect. A corps of ballroom dancers was welcome during the Onegin party scenes. Given how naturally balletic the music is, other parts were more formally choreographed by Rebecca Lazier. And to think that Prokofiev's great Romeo and Juliet ballet was initially considered undanceable.

An eccentric postscript was a contribution by the composer's grandson, Gabriel Prokofiev, in the form of a Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra. The very idea sounds crazy in light of the limitations in such a ham-fisted instrument. However, the composer created melodies by incorporating rim shots into the rhythm as well as some atmospheric moments by bowing the drum's membrane. The "concertante" tension between soloist and orchestra arose mostly from cross-rhythms with the ensemble. And the kind of orchestral writing required to do that felt anti-intuitive for the Princeton Symphony's string players, who played valiantly under Rossen Milanov.

The concerto probably needs a good long workshop with some German radio orchestra to determine how these instruments can meet more sensibly.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at

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