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Originally published June 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 10, 2008 at 4:14 AM

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Masters of movies and music combined to create "Nevsky"

Sergei Eisenstein's classic 1938 film "Alexander Nevsky" will come to life when Seattle Symphony Orchestra plays Sergei Prokofiev's score live at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Special to The Seattle Times

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For a clip of the "Alexander Nevsky" score, go to www.seattlesymphony.org and click on June 12 on the calendar on the left side.

Film preview

"Alexander Nevsky"

Presented by Seattle International Film Festival with live accompaniment by Seattle Symphony Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $17-$105 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).

"It's as if Michelangelo and Beethoven collaborated on 'Jaws,' " says producer John Goberman of the 1938 film "Alexander Nevsky."

Goberman's referring to filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev, who teamed up to create a classic cinematic story of heroes and villains in 13th-century Russia.

Now the movie will bring together another couple of heavyweights, when Seattle International Film Festival and Seattle Symphony collaborate on a presentation of "Alexander Nevsky" at Benaroya Hall.

As Eisenstein's bold images build on a screen above the stage to one of the most famous (and lengthy) battle sequences in film history, the orchestra -- along with the Seattle Symphony Chorale, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Weld and conductor Xian Zhang -- will bring Prokofiev's original film score to glorious life.

Seattle audiences will have the opportunity to see and hear "Nevsky" the way it was intended a couple of generations ago, when Prokofiev tried to fulfill the potential of his ambitious, progressive score on the film's soundtrack. The poor quality of Russia's recording facilities and Josef Stalin's premature appropriation of the movie, however, left the film's music a scratchy, blurry mess. It's still that way on DVD, 70 years later.

Goberman, creator of public TV's "Live at Lincoln Center" and the producer of the Benaroya event, wasn't exaggerating when he compared "Nevsky's" original creative team to Michelangelo and Beethoven.

Eisenstein is acknowledged by film historians as a crucial inventor of the movies, an architect of editing who made such seminal works as "Battleship Potemkin." Prokofiev is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, known, among other things, for his extraordinary score for the ballet "Romeo and Juliet."

Fellow Russians, both men were on the ropes at home in 1938. Prokofiev had recently returned to his country from an 18-year self-exile, only to find his work denounced and ignored. Eisenstein's glory days as a Soviet-sanctioned filmmaker, a favorite of Stalin, were so far behind him he was threatened with arrest.

Along came the opportunity to work on "Nevsky" together, and the two saw a chance to rehabilitate their official reputations. With the Nazis threatening Europe, the medieval story of a Teutonic threat to the Russian people of Novgorod, and the rise of a champion in Nevsky, was great anti-German propaganda. Stalin was keen on it.

For Eisenstein, "Nevsky" was going to be a relatively simple adventure story, albeit visually thrilling. But the director, working very closely on his first sound film with Prokofiev, managed to connect some intriguingly disparate elements -- literary references, black humor, Soviet nationalism -- with an inspired use of music.

The team utilized state-of-the-art innovations intensifying the relationship of image and music. Prokofiev, before returning to Russia, spent time with his friend Walt Disney learning an advanced scoring process. For "Nevsky," he and Eisenstein borrowed ideas from the so-called "silly symphony" scores in Disney's animation features, making music that comments on action as well as underlines it.

Where it all fell apart was in Prokofiev's doomed effort to record a decent version of his score in Russia. Prokofiev later adapted the score to a well-known cantata with full orchestration.

Goberman, who created Symphonic Cinema over two decades ago to marry film with live orchestra performances, got hold of a print of "Nevsky" from Russian archives. He says he took the composer's concert adaptation of the score and "turned it back into a film score."

"This is the music Prokofiev heard in his head while working on 'Nevsky,' " says Goberman, speaking from his New York office. "He wrote it for a little studio orchestra, where you can put the microphone close to an instrument. He wrote the greatest movie score, but it was a terrible recording. In a concert hall, the fuller orchestration gives you the sound he was looking for."

The first screening of "Nevsky" accompanying a live performance of the score occurred in New York in 1987, conducted by Andre Previn. Xian Zhang, hailed by The New York Times as a big talent, previously conducted the work in London.

"Eisenstein and Prokofiev got together when the relationship between music and film was being invented," Goberman says. "They were geniuses creating what we now take for granted."

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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