Review: Spellbinding Performance As Symphony Conductor Combines Russian Music and Ballet

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestras chief conductor, Alexander Prior, has a deep grounding in Russian music. Despite having a Scottish twang to his accent, his mother is Russian and he studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating with distinction at the age of 17.

In his first season in his new post, he has already shown his affinity to Russian music in his approach to such works as Tchaikovskys Symphony No. 5 and Rachmaninovs Symphony No. 2.

Last Thursday evening, he turned to the Russian tradition of ballet in front of a packed and enthusiastic Winspear audience.When composers wish to have their ballet music heard in a concert hall, they usually rework the music into a concert suite where the overall shape is better designed for the different circumstance. Indeed, Prokofiev turned the music from one of his masterpieces, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, into no less than three different orchestral suites, all of which are heard today.

Priors approach was a little different. Instead of playing one of the suites, he devoted the entire first half of the concert to excepts chosen directly from Prokofievs ballet. All the best-known music was there, ending with Juliets death, but the order will have been different for those used to the suites rather than the ballet.

This was a spellbinding performance, too. Prior took the music often heard with a veneer of neo-romantic lyricism back to its roots in 20th Century Soviet Russia. There was little sentimentality here.

Instead there were incisive rhythms, a steel-like edge to the poster-paint orchestral colours, a huge sound in the climatic moments (in a couple of places the huge orchestral swells reminded one of Sibelius).This was Prokofiev played closer to the grit of Shostakovich, at times almost inexorable, mechanistic in its inevitability (as, indeed, is Shakespeares story). The exciting fast and furious scurry of Tybalts Death, for example, would be difficult to do with dancers, but really worked here on the Winspear stage.

It was achieved by really precise playing and cleanness of sound emphasizing how at times the score is almost chamber-like. The brass managed something of a Russian snarl, the woodwind were, as usual, notable, though the orchestration was taken from the suites rather than from the full ballet. One wished that the orchestra did have more strings, though, for both here and in the Tchaikovsky that followed, the extra weight and sheen a large body of strings gives was missing, as if powered by a four-cylinder engine albeit a powerful and efficient one rather than the heft of a six-cylinder.

After such a compelling performance, Tchaikovskys The Nutcracker, which filled the second half, didnt have quite such panache, and indeed the orchestra was at times less precise.Again, Prior eschewed the concert suite that Tchaikovsky made from the ballet score, and instead the orchestra gave us the whole of Act I. This was an interesting idea, as Act I contains most of the main action of the plot, up to the point where the Nutcracker becomes a Prince.

It includes the battle between the toys and the mice, and ends with Waltz of the Snowflakes.It doesnt include the famous dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, but much of the best-known music is there.It was interesting to be able to concentrate just on the actual ballet music, without the dancers.

For it highlighted features one doesnt notice in the suite again, the often-sparse orchestration, or the unexpected affinities: the almost British feel of the childrens gallop and parents entry, or the echoes of Beethovens Wellingtons Victory.Prior also brought out some of the darker colours of the score, especially in some of the climaxes, in a way that again one might not encounter in the theatre.The ballet was not completely forgotten, however, for in the final number the Waltz of the Snowflakes the orchestra was joined by members of the Edmonton School of Ballet, very effectively choreographed, especially given the limited space available to them at the front of the stage.

Some theatrical lighting effects added to the atmosphere, as they had in the quiet ending of the Prokofiev.Perhaps most interesting of all, we were able to hear the wordless chorus that goes with this Act I closing tableau. Its not in the suite, and it is often substituted by an instrument in ballet performance, and thus is rarely heard.

Here it was sung by the Cantilon Chamber Choir, who well repaid their patience at having to wait right until the very end of the concert to sing.The ESO and Prior will be playing more Russian music on May 27 (Glinkas Russian and Ludmilla Overture), in a concert that sees the orchestra shift to Beethoven (here the Fifth Symphony), leading up to their performances of the Ninth Symphony on June 1 and 2.Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Russian BalletsOrganization: Edmonton Symphony OrchestraConductor: Alexander PriorFeaturing: Cantilon Chamber Choir and the Edmonton School of BalletWhere: WinspearWhen: Thursday, May 17

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