With ‘Alexander Nevsky,’ BSO channels medieval bombast


Members of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society perform. (Courtesy of the BSO)
January 13, 2013

When foreigners watch patriotic American films, they must find them obnoxious. This was one of my reactions to Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 epic “Alexander Nevsky,” a glorification of the medieval prince who routed the Teutonic knights in the 13th century, meant rather transparently to flatter Joseph Stalin. The film was screened at Strathmore on Saturday night, with Sergei Prokofiev’s bombastic and chilling score performed live by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

These musical screenings have been one of the great successes of Alsop’s tenure in Baltimore, able to pack the hall and providing a thrill for both eyes and ears. The musical contributions were all fine, with a robust orchestral sound, particularly in the heraldic brass, moody tenor saxophone and clanging bells of the heroic town of Novgorod. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, admirably directed by Tom Hall, had a big, beefy sound, channeling a Russian chorus. Mezzo-soprano Irina Tchistjakova, spotlighted in the balcony, gave a warm finish to the girl’s lament in the “Field of the Dead” scene. The overall effect of vast symphonic sound puts to shame the best cinematic sound system.

The overall cohesion of the score, when performed live, is better in Prokofiev’s cantata arrangement, because the feat of timing the sections of music to the film is considerably difficult. Alsop, coordinating with the aid of a small screen in front of her podium, hit all the cues well, but some stretching and contracting diminished the driving menace of the “Battle of the Ice” scenes. One of the few faults of the Music Center at Strathmore is that it has no concert organ, and the canned, electronic one used here gave a pathetically hokey sound for the scenes with the medieval organ hauled around by the Germans.

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