For the past few years, the Madison Symphony Orchestra has included a special concert in their season, Beyond the Score — a multimedia experience that combines documentary film clips and images, live musical experts, and character actors to give a wrap-around performance of a masterwork.
Last Sunday afternoon, the MSO, joined by members of the American Players Theatre, performed “Sergei Prokofiev Symphony No. 5: Pure Propaganda?,” engaging deeply with a work that has a story to tell.
Beyond the Score reframes the way audiences interact with the standard orchestral repertoire. In the first act, the audience learns about the conception of a masterwork through informative acted-out scenes intermixed with complementary musical excerpts and documentary images. In the second act, they listen to a live performance of the work informed by what they’ve learned. Listening to music from decades past is always an act of historicizing, but Beyond the Score gives audiences the tools to reanimate relics from music’s rich history through informed listening.
Prokofiev’s Fifth, completed towards the end of the WWII, seems an obvious expression of the composer’s Soviet nationalism (and even state sponsored propaganda!), but Beyond the Score gave a more detailed and robust history of the musical work and composer. The show began with the famed story of the work’s 1945 premier in Moscow (discussed in the program notes), and then went back through Prokofiev’s earlier career to position the famed symphony in his oeuvre. It was a great delight to hear the MSO play bits of the composer’s earlier compositions, filling in the picture of Prokofiev’s career.
Most interesting, Beyond the Score presented evidence in each of the symphony’s movements that suggests the influence of one of either Prokofiev’s earlier works or the works of other composers he revered. The MSO provided musical examples so the audience could hear the nature of the influence. Hearing an excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” right after the waltz pattern of Prokofiev’s symphony, for example, made for a compelling aural argument.
My inner musicologist was tickled by the exhibition of primary documentation — early sketches, film, letters, and photographs. There were, however, moments in the first act where the script felt insipid, and others when the narrative was difficult to follow, particularly when exploring the origin of each movement.
Sharing the front of the stage with the actors in Act One, Dan Lyons acted as Prokofiev’s musical voice, performing snippets of some of the composer’s early drafts of works at the piano. Hearing these sketches while viewing projected images of the manuscript gave a personal touch, as if the audience had insight into the compositional process itself. Lyons complemented nicely James Ridge, who played Prokofiev, and blended well with the orchestra, often handing off musical examples.
I was pleased to see the MSO rise to the challenge of Prokofiev’s demanding symphony. Notably, the first violins held together well through the fleeting lines and divergent rhythms of the first movement. The MSO also generated wonderful textures, particularly the robust tone of the clarinet and horns in the trio of the second movement. At the end of the performance, though, it was the percussion section, after displaying their ability to remain in lockstep during dancing as well as marching rhythms, that received the biggest applause from the audience.
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