At a festival of Sergei Prokofiev’s music, you’d expect the Russian composer’s big hits — “Peter and the Wolf,” the brilliant piano concertos — but when Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are the hosts, be ready for a curio or two.
Of course, “Romeo & Juliet” and other great ballet scores — “Cinderella,” and the opera “Love for Three Oranges” — are on the schedule for the event, which runs Thursday through June 24. Also, there are the audience-pleasing, pianist-taxing concertos, which sport an all-Russian soloist lineup: No. 1 with Ilya Yakushev, No. 2 with Vladimir Feltsman, No. 3 with Yefim Bronfman, No. 4, for the left hand with Yakushev, and No. 5 with Mikhail Rudy.
Concerts are preceded by a soloist recital free to ticketholders. On Thursday and Friday, Feltsman will join concertmaster Alexander Barantschik to perform Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor. On June 22 and 23, Rudy will perform Prokofiev’s “Visions Fugitives” and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka Suite.”
But beyond the tried-and-true, MTT — a musician of Russian extraction — also will present novelties and preside over complex discussions, dissecting the composer, his works and his era.
The composer (1891-1953), whose biography has been labeled “Prokofiev, Prisoner of State,” struggled through a career controlled by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin; both died on March 5, 1953.
Among unfamiliar works to be presented in Davies Hall are “Seven, They Are Seven,” on the program with the Piano Sonata No. 7, Piano Concerto No. 4, and the “Scythian Suite.” The 1917 “Seven” (revised in 1933) is described as an “Akkadian Incantation,” a seven-minute cantata for tenor, chorus and orchestra.
A member of the Symphony Chorus says the work refers to seven demons or spirits, “and we conjure these spirits from the oceans, the heavens, the ‘scorching whirlwind,’ the ‘blazing tornado,’ you know, the usual locations where a demon might well hang out. The music is very challenging for the chorus, containing many difficult pitches and harmonies.”
“Seven” reaches a fever pitch of bizarre and fantastic sounds: “It detours briefly for a descent to some dark hell, after which tension builds anew. A climax of surreal manner is reached, with the orchestra roiling wildly. Finally peace comes, as the music fades to the dark sounds of the drums and bass singers. That’s the kind of music best heard live.”
Russian Firebrand, Russian Virtuoso
Presented by San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: Thursday through June 24
Tickets: $25 to $104
Contact: (415) 864-6000 or www.sfsymphony.org