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Prokofiev's star rises at the Bowl


The last couple of decades have been hard on Prokofiev. Although he was once the most acclaimed Soviet composer, his reputation and popularity had been eclipsed in recent years by Shostakovich, who came to be seen as a more politically engaged, emotionally complex and intriguingly enigmatic figure.

But for those of us who have found Prokofiev the greater composer, the last year has provided a corrective remedy. Perhaps a weariness of Shostakovich's musical kvetching has finally taken its toll. With so many performances everywhere of Prokofiev's symphonies and concertos, operas and ballets, and the publication of new biographies and the composer's letters, evidence is strong that Prokofiev is back, big time. Tuesday night, the Hollywood Bowl really proved it.

The opening-night gala of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's summer season was an all-Prokofiev program. And the composer, rather than the performers, proved the main draw. Kirill Karabits, a 32-year-old Ukrainian little known yet in the U.S., was the conductor. The soloist, Vladimir Feltsman, is an eloquent Russian pianist who despite his highly publicized immigration to the U.S. as a dissident in 1987 remains these days only moderately in the public eye.

An Academy Award-winning animated version of "Peter and the Wolf," along with fireworks, were clearly part of the attraction for the audience of 8,000, but I still took encouragement from the smart programming and the crowd's enthusiasm that the Prokofiev revival is in full swing.

This was not, however, a particularly good occasion to get a strong impression of Karabits, who returns to the Bowl today with a more conventional program. The four selections from "Romeo and Juliet" that opened the program were the only works in which he didn't serve, in one way or another, as accompanist.

He is not a bombastic figure on the podium. He appears attentive to the orchestra, careful with his stick. I wrote off his slow, bloated, gloomy National Anthem to an Eastern European sensibility. But it turns out that Karabits presses down hard on the music whenever he gets the chance. If the National Anthem was barely singable, the "Romeo and Juliet" selections would have provided equal difficulties to dancers.

The bigness he brought to Prokofiev's ballet (which American Ballet Theatre, incidentally, will present at the Music Center next week) was not entirely unappealing. He got magnificent playing from the orchestra. The Balcony scene withstood excessive sumptuousness. But the thumping of "Tybalt's Death" became overblown heroism, just this side of Siegfried or Michael Jackson.

The Second Piano Concerto followed. Last season, a young Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang, gave a dazzling account of the score -- all fireworks -- with the orchestra in Walt Disney Concert Hall that emphasized the work's freshness and crazy virtuosity. Feltsman, who recorded the work with Michael Tilson Thomas in 1989, brought a more subdued maturity to his Hollywood Bowl performance Tuesday. He had power aplenty but he replaced impetuous showiness with luminous grandeur.

Karabits set a heavy tone, but that gave Feltsman space to fill with glowing tone. The pianist was in his profound element in the first movement, where a huge cadenza gives an infectious tune a massive working over, as he was again in the finale. If the middle movements might have benefited from a little lightening up, I am not going to be the one to complain about a Bowl opening night performance being untrivial.

Karabits had little leeway accompanying Suzie Templeton's "Peter & the Wolf," which won an Oscar in 2008 for best animated short film. But then again, this darker-than-usual gritty version of the beloved orchestral fairy tale (Peter finds himself thrown in a dumpster before the music starts) may have suited the Ukrainian conductor just fine.

No narration is used on-screen, and Prokofiev's score, which competes with dominating sound effects, is treated more as an accompaniment than a musical motivation to the story. In fact, given the way Templeton's visual cleverness and updating allow the cute and coarse to coexist, I think the film would be more effective with a similarly updated version of Prokofiev's score. Still, the film is full of delight, and the projection on the Bowl's large main screen was glorious.

The program closed with the Montagues and Capulets scene from "Romeo and Juliet," accompanied by an unusually sinister pyrotechnics show. Karabits underscored all that is down and dirty in battle music, and the sky was ablaze not with celebratory explosions but with belligerent bursts of firepower.

Just to make sure we got the point, Karabits reprised "Tybalt's Death" as an encore.

No fireworks here, just pounding hammer blows from the orchestra to send folks home pondering Prokofiev.


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