Lake District countdown 3: John on Prokofiev

Our clarinettist John traces the history of Prokofiev’s surprise hit, which features in our upcoming concert as part of the Lake District Summer Music festival on Saturday.

Next week the Berkeley Ensemble returns to give the closing concert of the Lake District Summer Music Festival. I have fond memories of our visit two years ago – an idyllic setting in glorious countryside combined with warm and friendly audiences resulted in fun and exciting music-making. Our programmes on that occasion featured several mainstays of our repertoire: Beethoven Septet, Schubert Octet and chamber works by Lennox and Michael Berkeley amongst others. Next week’s programme is a very different kettle of fish altogether. It includes works by Poulenc, Johann Strauss II (arranged by Schoenberg!), Martinů and Woolrich but culminates with Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet and opens with a work I’m rather excited about: Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes.

Next Friday will be the first time I perform the piece (scored for the uncommon combination of clarinet, string quartet and piano) and although I have heard snippets of it over the years, it’s always exciting to discover a piece properly and in detail for the first time. To prepare, I decided to cast my net far and wide and listen to a number of different recordings giving me both a good sense of appropriate speed and musical style but also to uncover any conventional performing practices or areas of interpretation which aren’t necessarily marked in the score. More importantly though, I fished around for a story as I love finding out more about the history of a piece so that this can also inform my interpretation and performance. It transpires that Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes is the offspring of an encounter between a small group of Zionist-oriented Jewish musicians committed to Jewish culture and a non-Jew who will always be counted among the major and most influential composers of the first half of the 20th century. The group of six musicians, collectively known as Zimro, were brought together by Moscow-born clarinettist Simeon Bellison (who later became principal clarinettist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra).

Zimro (‘singing’ in Hebrew, apparently) toured across Russia, China and Indonesia, and set sail for America in July 1919, by which time it had focused on the specific objective of raising funds for a school of music in Jerusalem. Zimro’s New York debut at Carnegie Hall in November was a great success, and Bellison convinced Sergei Prokofiev, a fellow graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, to write a new piece for the ensemble; Zimro premiered his Overture on Hebrew Themes in New York on 26th January 1920. Zimro’s tour was originally intended to culminate in Palestine, but Bellison took up his position with the New York Philharmonic and the group disbanded in 1921.

When the members of Zimro first approached Prokofiev in the autumn of 1919 with a notebook of folk and traditional Jewish tunes and the request to compose a piece for them on some of those melodies, he declined, stating that he did not really care to write a piece on themes other than his own. However, Prokofiev kept the notebook. Allegedly, one evening shortly thereafter he took out the collection and began to improvise accompaniments to some of the tunes. Intrigued by their unusual phraseology and colourful melodic turnings, he conceived a brief piece built from them, and sketched out the Overture on Hebrew Themes in just two days. It turned out to be an unexpected success and was immediately popular, with Prokofiev noting in his autobiography ‘I had not attached much importance to the Hebrew Overture, but it was quite a success’.

I’m looking forward to seeing if the audience next Friday agrees, and if you’ve been persuaded to take the bait, I do hope you can join us. If you can’t wait until Friday then do have a listen to my former teacher Chen Halevi’s exciting performance with the Doric Quartet, recorded live in 2015.