Prokofiev and Prose: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, April 1, 2011

This year, the Baltimore Symphony and music director Marin Alsop scheduled four “Off the Cuff” concerts, which experiment with mixing music and words to create something with more context than the usual program notes can provide. Friday’s concert at the Music Center at Strathmore had Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite as its centerpiece. Alsop gave about 15 minutes of biography and musical examples before ceding the microphone to four undergrads from Johns Hopkins University, who took turns reciting parts of their own retellings of the Cinderella story. Alsop and the BSO then traded selections with the writers as the evening progressed.

"I will tell you a magical tale from your childhood": Sergei Prokofiev

Alsop and the BSO typically do really well when the music they play calls for color and fantasy, as the suite’s Introduction showed, full of lively and well-shaped melodies and luxuriant sounds. But then each of the writers read the first several sentences of his or her take on Cinderella, enough to get an idea of the setting and character’s names, and by the time the BSO came back for the Pas de Châle the mood created in the Introduction had dissipated completely.

It didn’t help that the writers did not interpret the Cinderella story as eloquently as Prokofiev did. Each has a different background and drew on it to re-imagine the story: Doyeun Kim set her tale in 1800s Korea, Sophi Glazycheva in 1890s Russia, Ana Giraldo-Wingler in modern-day Bogota, and Akif Saifi in an unnamed Middle Eastern city that sounded an awful lot like Dubai. The students clearly have some talent, but they have not yet learned to discipline it; I found myself mentally deleting unnecessary words and correcting usage errors while they read. (One example of a sentence in need of editing: “Thinly veiled Communism seized his company.” Quick! Someone arrest that ideology! I hope we can still pick it out of the lineup while it’s wearing that veil! Another described two sisters eating the best meal “their bellies had ever had the pleasure of enjoying.” Most of the words in that sentence are unnecessary.) Saifi read his text confidently, but the others spent some time stumbling over their own words, which didn’t help.

So not all the ingredients in this concert were up to snuff. I also question the recipe. Prokofiev’s score is extremely European, right down the middle of Western Tradition Road, and no sidebar commentary is going to change the images it evokes in listeners’ heads, although the pauses did prevent those images from cohering into their own musical narrative. (Although the concert was advertised as providing a multicultural perspective on the Cinderella tale, the audience Friday night was the normal Caucasian monoculture.) The other narratives were fractured too — we didn’t hear all of anyone’s tale, just the beginning and end, plus a selection of interstitial plot development, presumably to ensure that the concert ended at a reasonable hour. It all led to confusion, not illumination.

If orchestras don’t explore new ideas for presenting their concerts, as the BSO is doing with these “Off the Cuff” concerts, they’re never going to figure out how to get audiences packed into the hall and buzzing with anticipation, which happens all too infrequently. A part of this process is trying ideas that don’t work, and so I’m fine with the BSO having tried this. I do wish I could hear Alsop and the BSO perform the Cinderella Suite straight through, though, because that could be part of an excellent night at the symphony.

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