Prokofiev, the epitome of sardonic Soviet critique
  • Prokofiev, the epitome of sardonic Soviet critique
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At this moment, Conrad Tao might be the most athletic pianist on the planet. His performance with the San Diego Symphony on Friday, November 1, felt as if it almost took the orchestra by surprise. It was a wild ride.

At times the orchestra’s ensemble felt unsettled with some uncharacteristically square playing from the woodwinds. To be fair, that could have been what conductor David Danzmayr wanted. I’m told, by credible sources, that this was not the case on Sunday. What was settled for all time is Tao’s status as a brilliant pianist. His encore was a piano arrangement of a Bach violin sonata. It was exactly what I needed.

There could have been no better way to close the first half of the concert than Bach. The lento selection Tao played was the epitome of grace. It had a firm foundation upon which its architecture presented its persuasive tones.

In my opinion, Tao saved the entire first half of the concert with that encore. It redeemed my faith in absolute music.

The opening piece of the concert was a new composition by Javier Alvarez entitled Arms of Mist. It was commissioned by the San Diego Symphony. An announcement before the concert said that there would be a talk back after the performance with the composer, the poet, and the KPBS immigration reporter.

Ok, ok. Here’s a piece of music expressing the dilemma of the immigrant. I’m an open borders kinda guy, so let’s see. Then a boy soprano walked out.

Oh hell no.

I might lean toward open borders but I lean, heavily, against low hanging fruit and blatant ideologies in art. Have there always been politics in art? Yes. However, they are not specific politics. Any political agenda is hidden in an artistic manner—because art must be more than politics in order to be art. Arms of Mist was an attempt at exceeding politics but its timeliness, in light of current events, did not allow for that.

Verdi and Wagner are two titanic composers with political views but none of their operas are set in their day and age. Wagner’s operas are based on myth and the Middle Ages. Verdi’s operas are set all over the place but not in the contemporary city states of the Italian peninsula. We are forced to extrapolate their politics.

Now we have a talk back with the composer so, for those who are interested, the extrapolation is done for us. This is pure conjecture but I had no doubts about the politics of the composer when the music was done, no extrapolation needed. In fact, I think I could go right down the list of current political issues and get about 90 percent of his political views correct.

That’s the problem with ideological possession. The actual artist isn’t present and has no voice. The ideology uses the artist as a mouthpiece. As Carl Jung observed, "People don’t have ideas; ideas have people." Ideological possession is one of the biggest problems we have on both sides of the political spectrum and in the creation of what currently passes for art.

Fittingly the final piece of music was Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7. If I were to extrapolate Sergei’s politics I would say he was sardonically critical of the Soviet ideology. The music had two characteristics, one jubilant to a silly degree and the other melancholic but always with an eye toward beauty.

Maestro Danzmayr and the orchestra were on point in playing with beauty. The opening movement was gorgeous. The sardonic bite of the second movement had teeth and the entire performance left me feeling satisfied with Prokofiev and his abstractions.

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