Classical music: He's Belgian - and no waffle

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Serge Dorny is the new broom at the London Philharmonic. But what, asks Malcolm Hayes, has he brought us from Flanders? Answer: a real faith in the power of music and in the ability of London's orchestras to deliver it. Oh, and plenty of Prokofiev.

Looking at western Europe's concert repertory over the past few years, you might reckon that there's only one conclusion to be drawn: The Russians Are Coming (Again). Since the demise of the USSR, there's been a relentless influx of Russian musicians understandably determined to build their careers in the West, and to earn in reliable currencies while they're at it. And even the finest of them are (with exceptions) stronger in their own repertory than in anyone else's.

The result? It's getting pretty hard to locate a live performance of a Beethoven symphony anywhere in the country, so knee-deep are the nation's concert programmes in symphonies by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, conducted (naturally) by authentic Slavs. Given this state of affairs, the London Philharmonic's four-date Prokofiev Festival might seem a case of carrying yet more Russian coals to Newcastle.

The festival is the brainchild of Serge Dorny, the LPO's chief executive and artistic director, headhunted last year from his successful tenure at the Flanders Festival in his native Belgium. Given the LPO's recent penchant for combining superlative playing with largely self-inflicted administrative wounds, many observers of the scene thought that Dorny must be mad or naive, or both, to have taken the job. Talking to him, it's clear that he's neither. Openly passionate about music, he's at least as much the artist as the politician, but, behind the enthusiasm, there's an unmistakable tough-mindedness. And he is well aware of the Slav-saturated context in which his Prokofiev Festival is taking place.

"But how many Prokofiev pieces are actually played?" he responds. "The Classical symphony and the Fifth, the Third Piano Concerto, the Violin Concertos, and Peter and the Wolf. Really that's about it. You might think from those works alone that this is a monotype composer. What we want to do is to show what a polychrome face his music presents. There's this fantastic variety, and we still hear so little of it."

Alexander Nevsky, to be fair, turns up regularly as the cantata which Prokofiev later constructed from his score to Sergei Eisenstein's classic 1938 film, with its stirring tale of the 13th-century hero repulsing the invading Teutonic Knights in a battle on an iced-over lake. The impact of the original soundtrack, however, was much reduced by the primitive technology of the time: Prokofiev had to arrange an orchestral conception for chamber forces, and his over-enthusiastic tinkering with microphone positions, intended to compensate for this, only made the problems worse. As has the subsequent ageing of the original prints, so that, besides the on-screen army of Teutonic Knights, another contingent appears to be busily frying eggs just out of view.

But then, in 1990, William Brohn arranged the score for full symphony orchestra, following Prokofiev's own scoring in the Nevsky cantata and reconstructing any missing passages from the soundtrack along similar lines. The result, to be played by the LPO on Tuesday simultaneously with a restored print of the film, should offer a thunderous multi-media experience of a kind that Prokofiev would have relished.

A pianist and performer himself, Prokofiev was, says Dorny, "instinctively a man of the theatre, who needed contact with an audience in every way he could find". This aspect of the composer's personality is represented in the festival by one of his five piano concertos - not the usual Third, but the rarer Fifth - and by samples of his excursions into opera. Besides a suite from the Sheridan-based Betrothal in a Monastery, there's a concert performance of Maddalena, written in 1911 but unperformed until a Radio 3 broadcast in 1979.

Another rarity is the ballet Chout - dating from Prokofiev's years in Paris and America, premiered by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1921, and based on an assortment of Russian folk tales (to be narrated, on 28 Nov, by Simon Callow). There's also the Symphony No 3 of 1928, which Prokofiev based on his opera The Fiery Angel, and whose noisy rhetoric and avant- garde radicalism (a lot more supposed than actual) arguably represent the composer at his most irritating. Dorny doesn't agree.

"Before his return to Russia in the 1930s, Prokofiev was perhaps in a kind of creative limbo. But almost every composer goes through a period of conscious experimentation like this at some point. It's part of the total picture, and it should be represented. It's also revealing that the story of The Fiery Angel is set in the past, like the other operas we're doing, and like Nevsky.

"I think this tells us something about Prokofiev. How different he was from Shostakovich, for instance, who in so much of his music was dealing with the events of his time. Prokofiev generally sidesteps this." Due perhaps to his tortuous personal and professional fortunes at the hands of Stalin and Co? "Possibly. But I think it was his nature in any case."

It hasn't escaped Dorny's notice that his Prokofiev series is just the kind of attractive, but one-off operation that London's multiple symphony orchestras have been mounting at the Festival Hall for decades. The start of the Philharmonic's solo residency on the South Bank in 1992 was meant to replace this dodgem-car approach to planning with a more concerted strategy. Its eventual mutation into a joint residency with the Philharmonia, accompanied by much internal blood-letting, was already under way when Dorny joined the LPO last year, so he is rightly in no mood to be defensive about the current situation.

"In London there's often a belief that cultural life on the Continent is in a stronger position than it is here. Of course there is still a degree of truth in this. But I would say that the reality is different from the perception. The financial situation is more difficult over here. I do not advocate this, not in any way, but it's one reason why musical standards here are so resilient. And there is a certain advantage for us too. The increasing financial difficulties which our European colleagues are having face are the same that British cultural organisations have been facing for many years now. So we have more knowledge of how to tackle them."

He also has little truck with the view that well-heeled European super- orchestras set standards that their Anglo-Saxon counterparts are in no position to match. "It's impossible to overestimate the strengths of an orchestra like the London Philharmonic, and of the musical life you have here. The energy, and the creativity. I know how good they are, because until I came to London I'd worked all my life in Europe, so I'm in a position to make the comparison."

Nor does he have much time for the doomsday scenario regarding the general future of the classical music business that is ubiquitously touted by the more meretricious elements of the media in the south-east of England.

"Certain things have changed from the time of Prokofiev's early works, for instance. Then, the performance of new music was a natural thing to do, and everybody did it. The situation is different now, and we do have to find ways of rediscovering this kind of involvement with what's happening around us. But I think the problem is much more one of emphasis than of substance.

"I was talking recently to the opera producer Adolf Dresen, who said to me: `In much of classical music now, only certain concepts are seen to be acceptable. Youth, and victory, and success of the triumphalist kind. There are so many issues that can't be addressed in that way.' He's right. It isn't good enough now just to be a good orchestra. We have to convince audiences that we have something appealing to offer them, and that they can trust us. I think there's a need to send out much more positive and enthusiastic messages about what we do. And that we're proud of it."

The LPO Prokofiev Festival opens 7.30pm Tuesday with `Alexander Nevsky', then 28, 30 Nov and 3 Dec. RFH, SBC, London SE1 (info/booking: 0171-960 4242)

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