Entertainment & Arts

Gabriel Prokofiev launches new violin concerto at Proms

Composer Gabriel Prokofiev Image copyright Alicia Clarke
Image caption Gabriel Prokofiev's Violin Concerto makes its world premiere at the BBC Proms

Gabriel Prokofiev, the grandson of the 20th Century composer Sergei Prokofiev, is presenting the world premiere of his new violin concerto at the BBC Proms. He tells the BBC his forebear's fame just adds to the pressure of giving a new work its first outing.

Gabriel Prokofiev is a man under pressure.

"I've got the whole famous grandfather thing, it's a brand new piece and I've agreed to do it about the First World War."

The composer has just got back from Turkey, where the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra has been rehearsing the concerto.

The piece, subtitled 1914, will be performed as part of the BBC Proms World War One anniversary season.

War composition

The weight of history may be on his shoulders, but it hasn't cramped his creative style.

The new concerto emerged from a collaboration with violinist Daniel Hope, who is the soloist for the premiere.

"We got on well, I really liked how he played, so we started talking about doing a violin concerto," says Prokofiev.

"He managed to set up this commission for me to write the violin concerto for the Proms.

"And then he said: 'It's going to be premiered during the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, what do you think about doing something connected to that?'"

Prokofiev admits he is fascinated by the conflict which ravaged Europe for four years.

But in writing his piece, he decided to focus on the first 12 months of the fighting, aiming for something that was "more rounded", rather than a "really harrowing" war composition.

He was also particularly excited to be able write in the concerto form.

"I think it's really quite special in classical music, because you have this soloist that's facing the audience - there's an individual that the audience can really connect with," he enthuses.

"So there's something very personal about concertos. But also obviously you have the huge orchestra and all the different sections of the orchestra - so actually I thought I could really explore and enjoy the theatrical potential of the concerto.

"And that's led to this concerto that has a soloist momentarily playing all the different characters and people who were important figures in the events of 1914."

Image caption Gabriel Prokofiev's earlier works include his Concerto for Turntable

Prokofiev produced dance music for a period before returning his attention fully to classical composition, and he retains an interest in electronic music and contemporary popular styles.

But he found it difficult to reconcile those elements with a concerto about World War One.

"I had to musically set up that historical era," he explains.

"To subtitle a concerto 1914 and then have the whole thing in a contemporary style, I think would be a bit odd - I had to give it some historical context.

"That's when it almost felt like I was making a costume drama - going back to older styles. There are a lot of references to the orchestral writing of the beginning of the twentieth century, but the way it's handled is more contemporary.

"And then as the piece develops a more modern sound world starts to dominate."

Prokofiev says he wanted to convey a broad picture of what was happening in 1914 - a year he describes as "the end of the old world, the old ways, the old hierarchies".

The composer views World War One as being about the end of the old empires and the inevitable emergence of the modern world.

Image caption Gabriel Prokofiev's grandfather, Sergei, is one of the 20th Century's most famous composers

"And in a way," he says, "it's the last screaming attempt of the older world to hang on."

Prokofiev's own desire to leave the old world behind has "led to his treading some innovative pathways", according to the Proms programme, which says he has a "love/hate relationship with classical music".

"No, no, no, no - I'm a big fan of classical music," insists the composer.

"I'm certainly frustrated with the way classical music is presented a lot of the time. I think classical music's found itself in a bubble that it's often not even aware of.

"Most people involved in the classical industry grew up in classical music, and they completely forget and take for granted that most of their audience won't have the same background as them.

"So they make a lot of assumptions and I think that alienates a lot of people.


What won't be lost on the audience at the Royal Albert Hall for the premiere of Prokofiev's violin concerto, is that he operates in the shadow of his prestigious ancestor.

So is it a help or a hindrance to be the grandson of one of the 20th century's most famous composers, writer of Peter and the Wolf, and the ballet, Romeo and Juliet?

"Both," he says.

"As my own career develops and I feel more confident in what I'm doing, then I'm able to connect with it in a more and more positive way.

"But I think, when I was younger, I was intimidated. I'm really inspired by my grandfather. But I definitely have a pressure to prove myself.

"And that must be something else that drives me apart from just being passionate about music."

Gabriel Prokofiev's Violin Concerto makes its world premiere at the Royal Albert Hall on 29 July 2014.

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