The closing symphony was by Prokofiev. The music was expertly performed, and it was clear by the end of the piece that the musicians were playing their hearts out and, at its conclusion, exuberant at having successfully performed a passionate and technically difficult performance. Consequently I find myself feeling faintly guilty at not really caring that much for Symphony No. 5 itself. Admittedly, I don't feel as bad about it as the couple behind us who, as we were all leaving, were discussing how awful it had been, and bemoaning having stayed through to the end — I guess they weren't Prokofiev fans! However, I also didn't find myself beaming gleefully at nothing in particular as I hummed happily to myself while we strolled back to the car — and that's what I usually do with the music I really love or (if it's new to me) greatly enjoyed.

Thinking about it later, to me (who is self-admittedly not a musical expert) Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 felt very much like a collection of interesting musical themes in desperate search of a purpose or meaning — and tied together with far too much percussion sturm und drang. At one point, for example, I was watching the harpist and the pianist both playing their hearts out, plucking the strings and pounding the keys with all their might — while immediately behind them a Chinese gong and a huge kettle drum were entirely drowning them out! I found myself wondering amusedly why Prokofiev would so torture the poor musicians by putting them in where they can't contribute anything at all.

The impression of lack of purpose in Symphony No. 5 felt particularly relevant to me since, in the pre-performance talk, mention was made of how Prokofiev put subtitles on everything — apparently both his Romeo & Juliet (mentioned below) and his wonderful Peter and the Wolf are studded with them, for two examples. His Fifth Symphony, however, has no subtitles whatsoever. Different people have decided he was composing his music to express the irony of the times (it was composed in 1944), or the anguish of how many died in the war, or to express the uncertainty of the revolution. I think I agree with the woman who gives the talks, however: it's easy to read onto his music whatever we wish to find, but there's no way to know for sure what Prokofiev himself intended. Myself, I suspect he didn't know either… but that's just my interpretation.

I found my reaction to his Symphony No. 5 interesting since I went to Ballet San Jose's performance of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet as well, and very much enjoyed it. Admittedly, I was most entranced by the beauty and passion of the dancing — musically I prefer Tchaikovsky's beautifully romantic, tempestuous rendition of the Shakespearean play to Prokofiev's somewhat harsher, more cynical feeling version. I was interested to discover two facts, however: first that Prokofiev originally composed the ballet with Romeo and Juliet waking up in time to survive happily ever after — his stated reason was that dead people cannot dance! He was overruled by whomever commissioned the ballet, however, and changed the ending accordingly. Secondly, I discovered that of all the musical versions of Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers, it is Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet which is the one most often choreographed.

The ballet I saw was choreographed absolutely amazingly, I think. When the music seems to follow the dance, instead of the other way around, I'm always impressed! The costumes were beautiful too, as were the sets; my only complaint was the lighting. In one or two crowd scenes where we were supposed to pay attention to a particular couple (Romeo and Juliet flirting shyly at the party, for example), a large and very white spotlight was turned on them. Not only did this look a little glaring on occasion, but it was also rather distracting to have what felt like a huge pole of light waved around sometimes, just above our heads on the balcony.

The dancers displayed emotion marvelously; the gentle flirtation between shy Juliet and Romeo was particularly delightful. Grief also was strikingly portrayed — when people in the play died, you really believed the survivors were devastated by the deaths! I found myself getting sniffly more than once as a consequence. Indeed, there was one interesting quirk I've never seen before which added quite a bit to the rather dark over-all feel of the tragic story: the after-performance bows were done with the performers still wearing the blacks of mourning they'd been wearing at the ballet's end. That and their initial stiffly separate bows (instead of holding hands like usual) lent a rather somber feel to the entire performance, as if it were a warning to us all as to the dangers of constant and pointless warfare. If it was indeed deliberate (which is not a given — I merely speculate here), then I certainly cannot blame them for doing so; beauty is ordinarily one of the first sacrifices to war.

~ * ~ * ~

So far I've tremendously enjoyed all the performances I've attended, both of the Symphony Silicon Valley and the Ballet San Jose. To have only one single piece leave me cold (out of three beautiful ballets and five amazing symphonic performances of three musical pieces each), is a huge win, as far as I see it. I'm incredibly happy with this wonderfully thoughtful gift of music, and very much looking forward to the next performance: "Cellos & Tchaikovsky" in May! ;)

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