by Margaret Croyden


Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

The New York Philharmonic
Conductor Xian Zhang
A Film: Alexander Nevsky (1938)
directed by Sergei Eisenstein
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
October 21, 2006
Reviewed October 26,2006
by Margaret Croyden

One of the recent surprises for concert patrons this season was the New York Philharmonic's presentation of an old Soviet film "Alexander Nevsky" accompanied by the Prokofiev's score written for the movie, played live by the orchestra. Conducted by Xian Zhang (one of the few women in that position) and assisted by the New York Choral Artists, a very large group under the direction of Joseph Fluerfeltd, the program was billed as a special event.
I had looked forward to seeing this 1930's film made by Sergei Eisenstein who, at the time, was one of the world's most famous film directors. And I was intrigued by the idea of listening to a live orchestra playing the Prokofiev score. But much to my regret "Nevsky" is not only dated but is almost comical, with its blatant, Stalinist patriotic propaganda, and dialogue so corny that it borders on camp. Even the music sounds banal almost like a Hollywood sound track.

Apparently the Soviets dragged up a story about a long forgotten medieval feud between the Russians and the knights of the Teutonic Order (the Germans) and Alexander Nevkey's 1242 victory over them. It is now well known that Stalin had ordered Eisenstein and Prokofiev to make this film to stir up Russian patriotism and hatred of the Germans who Stalin believed were about to attack Russia. Ironically, when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler, "Nevsky" was quickly withdrawn.

Why was this film admired in the first place? In the 1930's the film industry was in its infancy. Eisenstein was considered an innovator with his montages and his utilization of thousands of extras in the fight scenes which, at the time, was a novelty. And so Eisenstein's technical prowess blurred the blatant propaganda. But to see this film now is to wonder why a world famous orchestra would lend its time and energy to remind us of that vile Soviet Union and its vile propaganda machine. On the other hand, some audience members got the point. Many giggled throughout the battle scenes (which looked fake) and the super melodramatic patriotic speeches made by a very attractive actor Nikolai Cherkassov in the lead role.

Showing a film accompanied by a live orchestra is a splendid idea, but tricky, considering what access we now have to the film and music industry. Nevertheless it was a good try even though the worst offense was a boring evening--a first for the Philharmonic.


Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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