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'Nevsky' program a glorious end to BSO season


The greatest marriage of sight and sound in the cinema was between Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and his compatriot, composer Sergei Prokofiev. The first fruit of that partnership -- the 1938 film epic, "Alexander Nevsky" -- was the centerpiece last night in Meyerhoff Hall for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's final program of the season.

This was not the 40-minute cantata that Prokofiev fashioned from his film score. It was all 107 minutes of Eisenstein's great movie (in a fine-looking, restored print) on a huge screen beneath which the orchestra and the BSO Chorus -- under the leadership of BSO Associate Conductor David Lockington -- performed every note Prokofiev wrote for "Nevsky."

For those who only knew the cracked print, which has been circulating in art cinema houses since the 1950s, it was revelatory to see the movie in its unfaded glory. No other director knew how to use masses of people so intelligently and so imaginatively: "Nevsky's" vistas persuade the viewer that he can see forever, and Eisenstein's use of montage is still unmatched.

And, just as clearly, no director knew as much about working with a great composer. The battle on the ice at Lake Chud is still the greatest battle sequence ever filmed; it takes more than 40 minutes (or nearly half the film's length) and it never flags for an instant.

Eisenstein understood that the way to create excitement and spectacle was as much through psychological expectation as through extravagant mayhem -- which is all we get from the goons who give us our "Die Hards." Before the battle is joined, Eisenstein cuts back forth between the German invaders and the nervous Russian defenders, using Prokofiev's ominous ostinato to create a sense of dread before a blow is struck. Prokofiev goes on to establish a musical rhythm -- a savage alternation between Teutonic and Russian leitmotifs -- that is congruent with the director's montage.

This was Lockington's final concert as the BSO's associate music director and it was his finest moment in his years here. The orchestra and chorus performed excitingly and mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson sang the lament for the dead most affectingly.

"Alexander Nevsky" will be repeated tonight and Saturday night at 8:15.

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