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Bringing Russian culture to life

Anne McDermott
By Lisa Schumaier
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday February 6, 2003

It is hard to determine whether the piano is an emblem for Anne McDermott, or if McDermott has become the icon for the piano. Winning mantles full of awards and receiving standing ovations all over the world, McDermott gives the Tucson community the opportunity to be in the presence of greatness.

However, McDermott brings the presence of another musical saint with her, early 20th century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his death.

"That is why I am doing it this year. What is interesting is he died the same day as Stalin of the same thing (cerebral hemorrhage)," McDermott said.

It is significant to place Prokofiev in the context of Stalin. The connotations evoked by Stalin's name are of a Russia that our generation has only learned about in history books, a Russia that was composed of political turmoil, persecution and revolution. This is a chance to hear from another witness of that time, through a musical medium, of his life in a country he loved, but also exiled himself from.

"Prokofiev wrote his nine sonatas over a 40-year period of time. Through the course of nine sonatas, you see him go from an innocent, naive 18-year-old boy in the earliest; you can hear this innocence from the enthusiasm. Then, as each sonata progresses, they start to get a little darker and a little more psychotic," McDermott said. "By the sixth sonata, the Russian Revolution was going on and the music sounds like you're in the middle of a war."

The sonatas are fragmented into three nights of concerts.

"I am not playing them in order. The first program has the very first and last sonata back to back. It is a very stark difference in the writing. The last sonata sounds like he is resigned, thinking about death. The first sonata is musical and enthusiastic. I tried to put the programs together to maximize the emotional content of each sonata," McDermott said.

In fact, Prokofiev's only content appears to be his emotion.

"What is dramatic about his music and Russian music from that time, times were really bleak, and the war was vicious, and they lived in a tremendous amount of fear of getting sent away to prison camps but because of all that hardship, they found incredible joy because you have to find happiness in life," McDermott said.

"This is what I hear in Prokofiev's music: a combination (of) this innocent joy about being alive and then angst, pain and suffering. For him, the only way to release all of that was musically. This was his way of speaking about those times, and it deserves to be heard."

Various ingenuities of his music seem unconventional. He used the piano as a stage, one where he did have the freedom to profess or execute any message he wanted.

"It is very dramatic writing - irony and humor, but also a lot of darkness and viciousness. He uses the piano a lot as a percussion instrument," McDermott said. "He has a marking in there called īconfusto,' where you literally take your fist and bash it into the piano, without spraining your wrist hopefully. Also, īgoasando' where you slide your hand up and down the piano. He wanted a massive sound out of the piano. Then he will do things on the opposite end that are really soft. Where most composers would use two pianos, he'll use four or five."

McDermott is not just performing Prokofiev's work; she is reviving his life and career.

"I read every one of his biographies. I read a lot of Russian history because I was curious. I have become so deeply immersed. Knowing the history that intimately helps bring that through musically. I feel Prokofiev has been underrated and these sonatas are masterpieces. I want to make more people aware of them because they speak to everybody on different levels," McDermott said.

"I wrote the program notes for the concert and the reason I did that was because I feel each one has a story. The eighth sonata starts out and sounds like he's lost. (He) sounds like he is very far away. He doesn't know where he wants to go. It's wandering, uncertain.

"He tries to arrive and can't arrive anywhere then he goes into a fast section and it feels like war is imminent. It is uncomfortable, fast and far way, and slowly the music gets louder and louder and builds and gets nastier. And then, all of a sudden, just explodes and sounds like a canyon is going off. It is incredibly dramatic," she said.

"Then the movement retreats back into the opening material, and it is like post-nuclear war. I have played these pieces in public; it really doesn't matter if you know what the story of the sonata is, but if you sit with your ears open you hear a major story and it might differ from person to person, exactly what the details are.

"The music speaks to your gut and soul and emotions."


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