By Molly Freedenberg
When I heard the San Francisco Symphony is hosting a Prokofiev festival – ten whole days devoted to one composer – I figured I should probably know who this guy is. If our city’s esteemed symphony thinks he’s so important, shouldn’t I know why? So I set out doing my research, sure that I knew nothing about the little bugger.
Turns out I’m more familiar with the Soviet musician than I thought – and so, probably, are most of us. He’s the composer responsible for Peter and the Wolf – that famous piece used in elementary schools across the country to teach the kiddies about classical music. He also wrote the most famous version of Romeo and Juliet, the one written for the original Kirov Theatre production. He mastered several genres of music, wrote for film and for children as well as for symphonies, and basically kicked musical ass all over the world. And far from being a hero just to the classical set, he had such far reach that seminal punk band The Damned actually put out a 7” single dedicated to him, appropriately named “Prokofiev.” Which is to say, dude’s pretty badass. Or, you know, he was (he died in 1953).
It seems he was also a bit of an oddball. The little child prodigy started playing piano and composing music before most of us stopped sucking our thumbs – and yet, his first piece in the key of F completely skipped using the B-flat key because he didn’t like touching the black keys. (Wtf?) Later, teenage Sergei was known in the St. Petersburg music scene for being an enfant terrible(i.e. a pain in the ass), and now is considered one of the most important, and quirkiest, composers of the 20th century.
All of which is why conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and four virtuosic soloists are dedicating a quarter of a month to the Russian firebrand. And though the festival started June 14, you haven’t missed your chance to hear Prokofiev’s music for yourself. On June 22 and 23, see “Films, Frenzies, Fairy Tales,” featuring Prokofiev’s scores for the film Lieutenant Kije and the ballet Cinderella. And on June 24, see “Primitive and Refined,” a program featuring Piano Concerto No. 4 for the left hand (written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost an arm in World War I), and two pieces inspired by Slavic paganism. For more information and ticket prices, visit the Symphony website.