Sergei Prokofiev once said that he wanted his Symphony No. 5 to be “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.”
After fighting the crowds while shopping on Thanksgiving weekend, listening to Prokofiev’s Fifth might be just what the doctor ordered to restore one’s faith in mankind.
The Kansas City Symphony, led by guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, will perform Prokofiev’s optimistic symphony and works by Spanish composers Isaac Albéniz and Manuel de Falla this Friday and Saturday and Nov. 29 at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Pianist Alessio Bax will be the soloist in Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.”
Prieto, who is music director for the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, has previously guest-conducted the Kansas City Symphony in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet suite. Those performances were knockouts.
Prieto not only brings out the best in the musicians, but he also has a rapport with the audience. He has become a bona fide Kansas City favorite.
“I think the Kansas City Symphony is really world class, and I like the city a lot, too,” he said. “The orchestra has a dynamic way of playing, a youthful feeling along with experience. It’s a really fine orchestra with a lot of personality. And I wish every city had a hall like yours. It’s such a great thing.”
Whenever Prieto conducts the Kansas City Symphony he chooses a showstopper program, and it’s no different this time. The first half is devoted to Spanish music, three excerpts from “Iberia” by Albéniz and “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” by Falla. Pianist Benjamin Hochman was originally going to play for “Gardens,” but because of a scheduling conflict, Bax is taking his place.
“I have to say that I am one of the reasons Alessio is coming,” Prieto said. “I was asked who I would suggest to take (Hochman’s) place, and I thought about Alessio. ‘Nights in the Gardens of Spain’ is very unique. You have to be a connoisseur of that piece to understand it, and Alessio studied with one of the great Falla specialists, the Basque pianist Joaquín Achúcarro.
So it’s great that Alessio was able to do this. I think it’s going to be his first time in Kansas City. He’s quite a pianist.”
The second half of the program is devoted to Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Pairing Spanish and Russian music might seem odd, but Prieto sees connections.
“Prokofiev was married to a Spanish lady, Carolina Codina, for a long time,” Prieto said. “It’s a story that has inspired novels. She was a Spanish singer whom Prokofiev met in Madrid. Her mother was Ukrainian, so she spoke Russian, and Prokofiev was happily married to her up to 1943, which is the year he started writing his marvelous fifth symphony.
“So Prokofiev was always very close to Spanish culture. There is a connection, maybe involuntary, between this composer and Spanish music.”
Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, however, betrays no Spanish influence. Nor does it reflect the era during which it was written, the height of World War II, when the outcome of the conflict was far from certain. Prieto points out that the two symphonies that Soviet composer Shostakovich wrote during the Second World War are very different from Prokofiev’s.
Prieto describes Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, known as the “Leningrad,” and his Symphony No. 8 as pessimistic, militaristic, difficult works, much more permeated by the gloom of the war. Prokofiev’s Fifth, on the other hand, is uplifting, full of hope for the future.
“It’s a piece that is kind of disconnected from its time,” Prieto said. “It does not seem to be written in the Soviet Union close to the end of the Second World War. It could have been written at a time when there was peace and prosperity.
“The first movement is very grand and uplifting, while the second movement is a kind of demonic scherzo. The beautiful, inspired slow movement is followed by a finale that is very virtuosic, a showpiece. It has everything for everyone, including the orchestra. You’ll leave the concert with a very happy feeling.”
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com.