A new Prokofiev is helping classical music rediscover itself

Original Article @ http://www.philly.com/dailynews/features/20100723_A_new_Prokofiev_is_helping_classical_music_rediscover_itself.html
July 23, 2010
Related: Crane Arts and Nonclassical present: GéNIA, Joby Burgess & Gabriel Prokofiev

Try to picture the great Russian pianist and composer Serge Prokofiev visiting an artist’s studio to hear his piano music played. Then, in an even more unlikely scenario, imagine that musical legend deejaying other composers’ works between sets.

This exact formula will be followed tomorrow night by Prokofiev’s grandson, Gabriel Prokofiev, insistent that his generation respond to classical music in more informal venues.

Some of the 11 pieces from his Piano Book 1, released on the Nonclassical label, will be played by the talented pianist GeNIA (pronounced GHEN-ya). She’ll also perform excerpts from her first CD, “John Richards’ Suite for Piano and Electronics.”

GeNIA developed her exceptional technique in her native Ukraine and in England, and was the recipient of the prestigious Myra Hess Award. She also can boast a familial legacy – her great-grandmother’s brother was legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, and her first teacher in Kiev was Horowitz’s sister Regina.

Another artist from the Nonclassical roster, percussionist Joby Burgess, will also perform works by Steve Reich and Graham Fitkin. In between, Prokofiev will serve as disc jockey, offering excerpts from his eight-movement suite, “Import/Export,” and other remixed cuts from Nonclassical CDs.

Composing is challenging enough, but living in the huge shadow of such a famous master was initially daunting for the London-based Prokofiev. Before his father, Oleg, a painter and sculptor, defected from Russia in 1972, he (and his older brother Sviatoslav) were so menaced by a draconian piano teacher that they both gave up studying.

Serge Prokofiev famously said that “neither of my sons has an ounce of musicality,” evidently a relief to him.

Gabriel Prokofiev wasn’t pushed into music, playing piano and horn as a hobby, and his grandfather’s music wasn’t a constant presence, though his family attended major Prokofiev concerts in London. At the conservatory in York, the young man studied philosophy and music, finally committing to composition in his second year.

He was keenly aware of his legacy, with listeners expecting, as he put it, “a genius or wizard on the keyboard.”

“When my first String Quartet was played,” said Prokofiev, “I felt it was a very contemporary piece, with threads of popular culture in it. But none of my mates showed up, only an older audience, so it just seemed right to move in a club to reach people of my age.

“I knew John Richards from York, and so we began a composers’ collective of electroacoustic concerts. We would bring our own speakers to museums and converted churches.

“Now we run a London club, the Horse and Groom, upstairs from a pub. People listen with a pint in their hands and are usually impressively quiet when they hear good performers. It feels both informal and exciting, like the real world, with continuous sounds. Musicians like the idea of classical music rediscovering itself in a social setting, the way music used to be performed.”

Richards introduced Prokofiev to GeNIA, and he began to write pieces for her concerts after being impressed with her touch and sensitivity. He has also composed a Concerto for two turntables and orchestra and three String Quartets.

So how is Prokofiev’s piano music?

The 11 works on the CD have some of the spiky, citric declamations familiar through his grandfather’s Piano Sonatas and his searing “Visions fugitives.” The strident, percussive feel is there, but there’s also the occasional unexpected theme, reminiscent of the flower-blooming-through-the-ice nature of his namesake’s early, dissonant period.

The pieces hold up well in their short, three- to five-minute lengths, with the quirky, mellow “Side Dance,” the marchlike “Clock Watt,” ominous “Black Sauce” and “Cold Wooden Window” most memorable to these ears.

As forward-looking as Prokofiev and GeNIA seem, they insisted on going retro when it came to the recording. From the digital master, they transcribed the numbers onto analog tape and through valve/tube equipment to obtain the mellower piano sound heard on old LPs.

Deejaying tonight will mean reacting to the room’s vibe, selecting from mostly prerecorded cuts. In other situations where more equipment is available, he’ll remix themes from several pieces together, then loop and restructure them to make them more rhythmic, basically recomposing on the spot.

“I already did mixes with the Bournemouth Symphony,” said Prokofiev, “and will be doing some after the [London] Philharmonia Orchestra concerts. Instead of people leaving a concert and going to a pub to hear awful indie rock, they stay with music connected to the concert, and the evening becomes a big event.

“I am working on a crazy remake project with a French orchestra, remixing the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for chorus, live instruments and electronics. I’m normally not into messing with classics, but the opportunity to work with conductor John Axelrod was too great to pass up. And I’m about to start a concerto for bass drum and orchestra, in which Joby Burgess will just play on the wood and metal of the drum.”

Only imagination limits this young musician, carrying on a tradition with methods his famous grandfather could not have imagined.

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