Sergei Prokofiev was a sensational triple threat: composer, conductor and pianistic dynamo.
In what is shaping up to be a season of celebration, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is mining several veins related to the great Russian artist who exploded on to the Windy City's scene more than a century ago.
In 1918, at a Dec. 6 matinee with the CSO at Orchestra Hall, the 27-year-old Prokofiev ripped through the American premiere of his own First Piano Concerto and conducted the American premiere of his own Scythian Suite in what was clearly a herculean display. The Chicago Daily News was gobsmacked by Prokofiev's shifting touch from whispers to "thunderous masses of sound." The Chicago American was awed by his "weird harmonies" and by the huge ovation accorded him.
Prokofiev (1891-1953) had only recently fled the Russian Revolution to try his fortunes in Europe and then the United States. His invitation to visit Chicago was facilitated by Cyrus McCormick Jr., the farm machinery magnate of International Harvester fame, who happened to meet Prokofiev while on a U.S. government-arranged, fact-finding mission to Russia to assess the political situation there. McCormick asked Frederick Stock, then the CSO's music director, to look at some of Prokofiev's scores.
Stock recognized Prokofiev's genius immediately. On Prokofiev's second visit, Stock led the world premiere of the composer's Third Piano Concerto on Dec. 16, 1921. Remarkably, the multi-gifted Russian decided to stay in town to conduct the world premiere of his opera The Love for Three Oranges on Dec. 30, for the Chicago Opera Association, at the Auditorium Theatre.
Thus 2021 is an important Prokofiev centenary year for Chicago. When guest conductor Manfred Honeck joins the CSO for concerts on Oct. 28-30, it will be to commemorate those premiere performances of the Third Piano Concerto. This time, the soloist will be the powerhouse Russian Denis Matsuev in what is widely regarded as the most beloved and frequently performed concerto of Prokofiev's five for piano.
Just a week earlier, on Oct. 21-23, James Conlon will lead three performances of Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto with the Soviet-born Ukrainian and Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk — the same work that became a Chicago calling card for the young composer in 1918. (Conlon and Honeck replace Michael Tilson Thomas, who withdrew due to illness.)
In fact, Prokofiev was still a student when he composed the short showpiece, which clocks in at just under 16 minutes, with its three parts strung together and its personality unmistakable. Although he wrote a friend that the 1912 premiere was a big success with multiple curtain calls, a Moscow critic dismissed the work as crude and cacophonic, by a composer lacking in depth who contorted himself just to be novel. Two years later, however, Prokofiev would perform the same piece at his graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, when he won the coveted Anton Rubinstein Prize and a brand-new grand piano.
Rounding out the Prokofiev emphasis this fall is a Symphony Center Presents recital on Nov. 12 by Russian virtuoso pianist Daniil Trifonov, a Chicago audience favorite. He will lead off with Prokofiev's Sarcasms (Op. 17), on a program with works by Szymanowski, Debussy and Brahms. Prokofiev's work deserves its title. It's a jaunty blast, brash and colorful, often sly, downright demonic at times, and gloriously youthful. Trifonov should have great fun with it. The pianist was in Chicago in 2017, when he performed five of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the Gavotte from Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella. This November performance should add some edge to that Prokofiev picture.
Under the leadership of Music Director Riccardo Muti, Chicago audiences have become acquainted with the great stage works of Prokofiev, including the 1939 cantata Alexander Nevsky, which was adapted from music for the film by Sergei Eisenstein. It takes a small army of choral and orchestral forces to perform that work in the classic operatic fashion of a grand lyric drama unfolding. Its great heart, the "Battle on the Ice," which soars like the patriotic cry of a struggle to the death against all invaders, was a high point at Chicago and Carnegie Hall concerts in 2015.
In 2017, Muti and the CSO gave a performance of Prokofiev’s film score adaptation of Ivan the Terrible that was nothing short of operatic in the majesty of its vision and the grip of its blood-red emotional palette. Star power was on hand in actor and longtime Muti friend Gérard Depardieu for the CSO premiere that February at Orchestra Hall. Depardieu spoke the words of Ivan, the tactically brilliant Moscow prince who united all of Russia into a 16th-century empire as its visionary yet increasingly brutal and terrifying czar. Prokofiev's music was electrifying. Even for Muti, it was an extraordinary night.