Up to a point, John Goberman and I have had a similiar experience vis-a-vis "Alexander Nevsky."
We first encountered it through the music, specifically Prokofiev's concert cantata for mezzo, chorus and orchestra, him by actually playing in a performance with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, me by way of recordings.Then came the film itself, tracked down at art houses while we were each in college, him as a Russian major at Columbia and me at Stanford. Sure, the print was scratchy and the soundtrack pretty dreadful, but we were blown away.
The difference is, for him it wasn't enough. He wanted somehow to bring the two together.
The result was that in 1987 the six-time Emmy-winning "Live From Lincoln Center" television producer secured the help of AT&T in sponsoring screenings of the 1938 film classic, for the first time with full symphony orchestra and chorus, in Los Angeles, Cleveland and, ultimately, Washington. Andre Previn led the L.A. performance, Vladimir Ashkenazy the one in Cleveland. Subsequently the latter would take it to London, then back to Cleveland, and before long the "Nevsky" event was being mounted all over the country.
This week it comes to Utah, for two screenings as part of the Utah Symphony's regular classical subscription series Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8, at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall. Performing, in addition to the orchestra under music director Joseph Silverstein, will be the Utah Symphony Chorus, Ed Thompson director, and mezzo-soprano Laura Garff.
"It's amazing how many conductors love to conduct this," Goberman says. "So far we've done it in about 20 cities, including Toronto, Montreal, San Diego and San Antonio, and next fall the Boston Symphony will be opening the season with it, under Ozawa."
For the record, this isn't the first time the Utah Symphony has had a brush with the "Nevsky" music, or even accompanied a full-length film. Five years ago, almost to the day, Silverstein led the orchestra and chorus in the cantata - in the original Russian - and last year the orchestra provided the live accompaniment for the United States Film Festival's opening-night screening of F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise," with a new score by David Newman.
But, however carefully that needed to be coordinated, that was a silent film. "Alexander Nevsky" is a sound film, the first by the legendary Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, with not only dialogue - again, in Russian - but musical cueing so exact that, in a reversal of the usual situation, in some instances the director actually edited the film around the score.
One would expect the problems there to be enormous.
"Actually there's very little overlap of the voices and the music," Goberman says, adding that using various kinds of electronic processing he and his technical staff were able to remove the latter. "Then, to coordinate the music with the film, we've devised a clock system, with the clock automatically driven by the film with each music cue, so the conductor can keep track of where he is and at the same time breathe with the music."
Normally, Goberman acknowledges, something like this would be coordinated by means of what is called a "click track," fed to the conductor via earphones during an actual screening of the film. "But that is not the way a major conductor wants to conduct major music. And this is major music, not background music but foreground music, and as far as I'm concerned the idea of doing it with a dictated metronomic beat is unthinkable."
The first problem to be solved in getting the project under way, however, was to nail down a high-quality print of the film. And as anyone who has seen the public-domain video copies in circulation today can attest, that was no easy task.
Eisenstein's original nitrate negative lay in a film archive in Moscow, but working through Corinth Films, the movie's U.S. distributor, Goberman kept up a barrage of letters and phone calls until the Soviets agreed to have a new print struck.
"When I saw it," Goberman says, "I knew that it had been worth the trouble. Fifty years is about the age when nitrate film starts to break down, and I honestly think we may have gotten the last, best print of `Alexander Nevsky.' "
Having seen that print, by way of its Image laser-video issue, I am inclined to agree. Not only is there an unaccustomed sharpness in the black-and-white imagery - something at which Eisenstein excelled - but the shadings in between and painstaking detail of his cinematic canvas come across as never before. And make no mistake - this is a major film, depicting the defeat in 1242 of the invading Teutonic knights by the Russian people under Grand Duke Alexander of Novgorod, who two years before had similarly routed the Swedes at the River Neva. Hence the name "Alexander Nevsky."
Atypically for Eisenstein, however, the epic struggle is here counterpointed with a fair amount of sentiment, most prominently the rivalry of two comrades in arms for the love of a maiden who vows she will marry the one who is bravest in battle. Hard is the heart that can resist the scene where the two of them lie wounded, one cradling the other in his arms, as they hear her song, "The Field of the Dead," as she searches for them following the battle.
The most unforgettable scene, though, is probably the battle itself, accompanied by a pounding motif that, as Goberman points out, John Williams would pretty much appropriate for the shark in "Jaws." Fought on the frozen surface of Lake Chud, it culminates with the ice cracking under the weight of the Germans, their armor dragging them beneath the surface.
"It's important to remember," Goberman says, "that both Eisenstein and Prokofiev had recently come from Hollywood and the result was not an esoteric art film but a film made to be popular by two of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. Instead of Russians and Germans, they could almost be cowboys and Indians. There is even a Gabby Hayes character (in the person of the armorer)."
Maybe. But the Russian-German conflict the film depicts - and its eventual outcome - had unusual pertinency for Eisenstein and Prokofiev's own day. Remember, this was 1938, with Hitler's armies poised to take over most of Eastern Europe. Thus the film can be seen as a propaganda piece, but one whose power remains undiminished to this day.
Part of that can be laid to the employment of what Eisenstein called "vertical montage," or, in his words, "an organic cinematographic fusion of sound and image." "A visual opera," another writer has called the film, and in the way Prokofiev's music often dictates its pace and juxtaposition of images that is not too far from the mark. Sometimes, of course, it went the other way.
That was how it affected Silverstein when he first saw the picture many years ago. "I was just blown away by the battle on ice, which is so spectacular it makes our computer-generated spectaculars these days look pretty tame." Later he conducted the cantata at Boston University and recorded it with the Boston Symphony under Erich Leinsdorf as part of their Prokofiev cycle - an RCA master that remains unreleased to this day.
But I don't know anyone who would make a case for the soundtrack recording of the score. Primitively played and recorded - Previn once commented that it sounded as though it had been done in a telephone booth - its rhythms come through but only a fraction of its splendor.
"It's the best film score ever written, but the worst film score ever recorded," Goberman proclaims. Thus it has been arranged, following the expanded instrumentation of the cantata, by William D. Brohn to conform exactly to the original cues.
"The advantage there is that we have Prokofiev's own orchestration for the concert hall," Goberman says, adding that those portions of the music that were not carried over to the cantata have been reconstructed from the soundtrack. By the same token those portions of the cantata not in the film have been reworked into an overture. Add to that new below-the-frame subtitles by Sonya Friedman and you have a unique presentation.
And how fearlessly is Silverstein approaching all of this?
"Well," he says, "I've worked with a click track, and of course accompanied dance, but I've never been in a situation where I had to synchronize what I was doing with an actual film. But I must say having the videotape to study, and an extremely well-marked score, take much of the anxiety out of it. But I will have to be careful not to get so deeply involved in the film during the dialogue sequences that I forget to tell the chorus to stand up."
As for the latter, Silverstein says, under the expert coaching of Utah Symphony violist Mikhail Boguslavsky and his wife, Nina - who helped them with the language the last time out - "their Russian has been pronounced kosher." Then he adds on reflection, "I probably shouldn't use that term."
"Actually, my main concern is that I want people to know that this isn't just a concert they are attending - they're going to see an entire film."
To which I can only add, are they ever.
Tickets for Friday's and Saturday's screenings are priced from $10 to $29, with student tickets available for $5. Goberman himself will deliver the pre-concert lecture immediately before the program, and patrons are advised to be on time, as there will be no intermission and latecomers will be seated on the aisles.
For information call 533-NOTE.