Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," with Jordan and the BSO
Saturday, April 1, 2023
In an encore Boston Symphony broadcast, Philippe Jordan makes his BSO debut conducting an all-Russian program of Borodin, a suite from Prokofiev’s "Romeo and Juliet," and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with soloist Yefim Bronfman.
Philippe Jordan, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
BORODIN Overture to Prince Igor
RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 3
PROKOFIEV Suite from Romeo and Juliet
This concert was originally broadcast on February 12, 2022 and is no longer available on demand.
Hear Philippe Jordan describe his own suite from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, the differences between conducting ballet music for a ballet and in concert, and the complicated history of Borodin's Prince Igor Overture with the audio player above (transcript below).
Hear Yefim Bronfman describe the challenge of returning to Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto after being away from it for many years, the value of hearing the composer play it, and the mysteries of choosing the right instrument to play it on (transcript below):
Transcript of the interview with Philippe Jordan:
Brian McCreath Welcome to Boston. Is this your first time to Boston?
Philippe Jordan It's my, literally, my first time in Boston. I've never been in my life. Not as conductor and not even as a tourist, or visiting people. So it's a very exciting moment for me.
Brian McCreath Excellent. You chose an All-Russian program. And let's talk first about the Prokofiev, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Is this collection of the selections from the ballet your own arrangement of the selections?
Philippe Jordan Exactly. I made my own suite, which is basically based on the story. I think it's nice when you can follow the story somehow. I mean, a lot of conductors do pretty much the same version. It's just in details where things are different. So for me, it's very important to put at the end "The Death of Juliet," from the Third Suite because, I don't know why the usual versions end with "The Death of Romeo." And it's actually such a magic moment when Juliet wakes up at the end and it's one of the most breathtaking moments in Romeo and Juliet anyway. And other details like to put "Friar Lawrence" before the battle and after the battle. You cannot marry after "The Mort [Death] of Tybalt." It's impossible. You have to separate them. So I'm following a little bit more the dramaturgy of West Side Story than the ballet.
Brian McCreath Yes. And you get a chance, as you're doing your own suite, to include those really short little things that maybe aren't that necessary for the program or the story. But they're such characterful - I think of "Masks.".
Philippe Jordan Yes.
Brian McCreath You know, "Masks" isn't necessarily, you know, you don't have to have it for the story, but it's such a lovely little couple of minutes.
Philippe Jordan Yes. And you know, you have the Minuet ["Arrival of the Guests"] before, which is basically the same tonality. And so they kind of belong together, and it's a ball, so in a ball, there's at least two dances, and the "Masks" remind me, as well as the play, of music in West Side Story when everyone leaves before the balcony scene starts. So it's kind of a getaway where everyone leaves. And it's beautiful to go really attacca [with no pause] from one number to the next. So it's really, through tonalities and just the shape of tempos, it works very, very nice.
Brian McCreath Yeah. Now you have this incredibly deep background and track record in opera.
Philippe Jordan Yes.
Brian McCreath Of course, a lot of symphonic work, but a lot of opera. And I just wonder if you have a feeling that your work in that field informs the pacing, the storytelling that you're doing in Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.
Philippe Jordan I guess so. Somehow it is very story related. But as well, probably some of my tempos are probably a little slower than what is expected. For example, "Masks" and things like that, because it's just, you know, from the ballet, where it's not rushing. They have to dance it somehow. But basically, it's the storytelling, which is, of course, the most interesting for me doing this repertoire.
Brian McCreath Well, and now you mentioned tempos, and as someone who, myself, played in a ballet orchestra at one time...
Philippe Jordan Oh, then, you know how this is.
Brian McCreath I wonder how much you are thinking of any particular choreography or I could also see that you would, this is just pure music, and we're just going to allow the music to speak for itself. Do these things enter your mind at all?
Philippe Jordan I think it's both. I don't have to do the tempo of the ballet, because sometimes, as you probably have experience, it's not the most musical tempos. So I always quote Dutoit, who asked the ballet company, "Which tempo do you want today, too fast or too slow?" So it's always wrong for them. But it's good to know where it's coming from, yeah? So, same when I do Rite of Spring. So I like it rather fast, yeah? So it never worked with the ballet. I remember just now in Paris because of the COVID problems, they had to play The Rite of Spring with a recording. And I made a recording with the Paris Orchestra. And so they [said], "Oh great, let's do this!" And then they just saw my tempi. There was no way they could do it. I mean, even with the slow tempi, it's the Pina Bausch ballet. They're just like gasping after each number, after this slow tempi. So would they do it faster? It's imossible.
Brian McCreath It is one of those things that, people at the ballet don't realize how hard the musicians are working to make music out of some of these tempos that have to be done to fit the choreography.
Philippe Jordan Exactly.
Brian McCreath But, not a problem here with the BSO.
Philippe Jordan Absolutely. We're pretty free there.
Brian McCreath Tell me about your choice for the overture of this program. I don't know if you know this, it's hardly ever been done by the BSO.
Philippe Jordan Yeah. Very few orchestras play it, yeah? In Russia, they play it up and down, of course, it's like Ruslan and Lyudmila. The same tonality, it has the same effect. It's a great overture. But it's rarely played, I think, for the reason, because already the opera, Prince Igor, is unfortunately rarely played. It was never finished by Borodin. It took him, I think, about 14 years to write it, and then he died. But it's still a wonderful opera. And the overture is actually, let's put it this way, not an overture by Borodin. It's basically an overture by Glazunov. Especially when you have conducted once the opera and you know how the risk sounds, so the overture doesn't really sound like Borodin. The themes are by him. And he played it a lot at home to his friends, among Glazunov, of course, who played it with him and heard it. So after the death of Borodin, Glazunov reconstructed this improvisation on the themes of the opera to make it an overture. And we have Rimsky-Korsakov helping with the orchestration.
So we have three master composers working on this overture. And I like it very much. It has this incredible nostalgia of this, yeah? We always know just the “Polovtsian Dances,” and they have already this exoticism and this nostalgia about the Far East and the exoticism, which is not in the overture. The Overture is really more the Russian side. It's about the Russians who went in war to the Polovtsians and got captured by the Polovtsians. And so it's this separation by Prince Igor and his wife, Yaroslavna, and facing big, big solitude. And you really feel this, especially in this wonderful melody of the horn solo, which is then played by the violins and the cellos as well, which comes a lot in the opera, and it's an incredibly beautiful melody.
Brian McCreath Yeah, and such a great prelude for the concerto that comes after it. These melodies, these Russian melodies have such character to them and tell me about working with Fima, Yefim Bronfman.
Philippe Jordan Oh, Fima is my favorite pianist to work with. I think we met about 15, 18 years ago in Minneapolis. I was still quite a young, unexperienced symphonic conductor, and I did my first Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto with him. And it was so wonderful just to meet him. His sincere and incredibly fantastic playing, the sound he produces, and the knowledge he has, and the humility, which he has. It's so sincere. It's no affect. It's no show off. It's just the piece at its best. And even though I was a young conductor at the time, he was treating me like a colleague, very, very nicely. And he didn't have to at the time. And we did in Vienna when I was at the Vienna Symphony [as the] Music Director, he was Artist in Residence for one year. So we did quite a few things. And so it's always great seeing him again. He's definitely my favorite pianist to work with.
Transcript of the interview with Yefim Bronfman:
Brian McCreath It was only a couple of years ago, two and a half years ago or so that you played Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto with the BSO at Tanglewood.
Yefim Bronfman Yes, I remember.
Brian McCreath Yeah. And at that time I remember that you hadn't played it at that point for about, something like 10 years before that.
Yefim Bronfman Correct. It was, you know, a piece I have... I don't remember when I played, maybe even longer than 10 years. And I reconstructed it and gave, I was trying to give it new life. And then this new life was interrupted by COVID. So all the engagements with this piece - I had several - were canceled. But now it's happening.
Brian McCreath It's very much happening. I looked at your schedule, and in this concerto features very prominently in your season this year. You're playing it in so many places with so many orchestras.
Yefim Bronfman Well, actually last week in Los Angeles and this week here in Boston. And then I do a couple in Europe, and I think that's about it.
Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah.
Yefim Bronfman Next season, a couple.
Brian McCreath OK, OK. Now, I did notice that just now, after rehearsal, you were testing the two pianos that you might use. Tell me what it is you're looking for in the instrument for this piece, particularly, that's going to make a difference for you.
Yefim Bronfman I wish I knew how to answer that question. I think it's always best when there's no choice of pianos. But when you have two pianos, I never know what to select. And then, we just had the rehearsal, the first rehearsal with one piano, and I thought maybe the other piano has qualities that this piano doesn't, and vice versa. And one is trying to decide what works for this particular piece, what qualities. And so there's a big headache, always,
Brian McCreath [Laughs] But it must have some degree of some fascination for you to try to find that balance, to find that right quality in the instrument that... I imagine it has to do with the balance of how it is to play and how it actually sounds, that those aren't necessarily the same thing.
Yefim Bronfman Correct, yes, it's a very good point. Of course, if the piano sounds good, and if it's a little bit difficult to play, I'm all for it. I mean, I'm willing to work hard to, because it sounds better. And sometimes, you know, it just all works perfectly well, you know, and then, of course, very rarely it happens. And so when it's two... But both pianos are very good pianos. It's just a question of maybe a degree of improvement for that particular piece.
Brian McCreath Sure. Now you said that when we talked previously, you hadn't played the piece, the word you used was you "reconstructed" it to play it again. And I noticed that your, I think you recorded it in 1991 or 1992.
Yefim Bronfman It was my first orchestral recording.
Brian McCreath It's your first orchestral recording! No kidding! Oh, wow, Esa-Pekka Salonen...
Yefim Bronfman Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Brian McCreath And I think it was the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Yefim Bronfman Philharmonia, exactly.
Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah. So if someone were to listen to that, but now listen to the concert that you're doing here, the program you're doing here in Boston, and that reconstruction has happened in the meantime. How different are they for us listening and how different is it for you to play?
Yefim Bronfman Well, I haven't listened to my recordings for 30 years, so I have no idea what it sounds like.
Brian McCreath Fair enough.
Yefim Bronfman All I know that is 30 years later, I'm a different person, and I think that my approach to this piece is different from that particular time. And I think that it's what it should be, you know, that music does never have a final product. It's always moving forward. It's always, hopefully not backwards, but it's always moving. So I think that music is alive and it changes every day. It was like, we humans, we change and we does music.
One thinks that we get closer to the truth, but that's a very arrogant thing to say. You know, of course, as long as we breathe and talk, we have some input on the piece, whether it needs it or not. But one always tries to clean all the unnecessary stuff out of the piece that maybe doesn't belong, or maybe it does belong, who knows.
But the good thing about this particular concerto, Rachmaninoff Third, is that we have a recording of the composer himself. And it gives us tremendous support and help in finding out what this piece is about. And the misconceptions we had about it before, I mean, I wish we had Beethoven playing his concertos or his sonatas, and we would really get closer to his music. We can only guess, and we can only use our educated knowledge about how it should sound.
And of course, 10 pianists will sit in the same room, they all have different opinions about you should sound. That's kind of interesting.
Brian McCreath Oh, yeah, sure.
Yefim Bronfman But what I found so nice about Rachmaninoff playing this, it's so not sentimental. It's so wonderfully straightforward and simple. The simplicity and beauty just speaks out without being too sentimental and to suffering, you know, like a lot of us do. And it's just refreshing in the fact. You know, I remember when I played it for, I played Rachmaninoff's music for one of my teachers, Leon Fleisher. He always said about Rachmaninoff and the way Rachmaninoff played it, he said he's playing it so cold, like dry ice. And it becomes very hot. You know, it's like dry ice. You know, it's cool, but it's hot at the same time. And you know, that's what I think about it. I think this has a lot of wisdom, what he said. So, it's easier said than done. You know, and every performance is different.
Brian McCreath Sure. And just a final question, you had this concerto as part of what you were doing in your schedule and then COVID happened. You, like everybody else, had to stay at home for some degree of time. And did that time give you more chance to further reconstruct? Did it make you reconsider any particular thing? Where did it lead for you during the time that we all had to basically stop moving around a lot?
Yefim Bronfman Well, I don't know if it did for this particular piece. I know it could have happened also in the busy schedule that I would reconstruct the piece and rethink it and give it a new life. It's not easy to bring back pieces that you've known practically your whole life. There's so many layers of feelings about it and so many performances where things happened in it, you know, good or bad that you know, sometimes to have too much experience is not so good. You know, I think you have to fight for getting new ideas, getting to another plateau of this particular composition and make it new and fresh again. And that's a challenge, you know. And it's also technically a very challenging piece. And it doesn't get easier. It's equally hard or even harder now than it was because also demands are different. And, you know, also I have more experience and you know more what to bring out and what not to bring out. You know there are millions of notes in this music and I think somewhat less important than others. And one has this gradation of colors. And this all somehow makes more meaning, gives more meaning to me. And I try to fight for it, you know?
Brian McCreath And when you play it here, you played it in L.A., you're going to play it in Amsterdam I think, some other places in Germany, do those gradations change a little bit with each orchestra?
Yefim Bronfman It changes with the piano and it changes with the hall a little bit. Not so much with the orchestra. Of course, some orchestras play, I mean, you know, let's face it, a great orchestra like Boston Symphony, there's no challenges, you know, in terms of making things clear and beautiful. They just, they just sound beautiful. When they put their hands on their instruments and suddenly it sounds great. They know how to create a beautiful sound and they know how to create a different kind of color in the sound. And you know, you can tell there's a bunch of great musicians playing music versus lesser, you know... So with orchestras like this, in a way it's easier. But also it gives me a responsibility to be as good as them, you know.
Brian McCreath Very wise thought. Absolutely, yes. Yefim Bronfman, thanks so much. I'm so glad you're back here at Symphony. It's a pleasure to have you here.
Yefim Bronfman Thank you so much. Thanks. Great to be here.