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A Prokofiev overture’s Zionist moment

Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev
Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sunday, Dec. 11, the Boston Chamber Symphony inaugurates a residency at Brookline’s Temple Ohabei Shalom with a program including Sergei Prokofiev’s “Overture on Hebrew Themes.” It was composed in 1919, while Prokofiev was living in New York City, but commissioned by colleagues from St. Petersburg who had formed a sextet — clarinet, string quartet, and piano — called the Zimro Ensemble. Dedicated to Zionism, Zimro performed Jewish-themed repertoire and raised funds for a proposed “Temple of Art” in Palestine. The group left St. Petersburg in 1918, touring Siberia, the East Indies, and Japan before coming to America. Clarinetist Simeon Bellison asked Prokofiev for a piece to anchor Zimro’s Carnegie Hall debut, providing the composer with a number of musical themes (which, in fact, Bellison may well have written himself). Prokofiev played the piano at the premiere.

If Zimro’s origin reflected Zionism’s appeal, its transience — 1921 marked its last performances — was testament to American opportunity. The group never made it to Palestine; instead, the players settled in the United States. Bellison almost immediately was appointed principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. Cellist Joseph Cherniavsky, by contrast, immersed himself in New York’s Yiddish theater and vaudeville scene as composer, conductor, and impresario, even running, for a time, a Yiddish-American jazz band. Jacob Mestechkin, the first violinist, a modern-music specialist (he performed in the American premieres of Bela Bartók’s Second String Quartet and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”), became concertmaster of the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra (playing alongside his wife, Elfrida, another St. Petersburg virtuoso and sometime Zimro violinist).

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Second violinist Gregory Besrody was, by the 1940s, performing popular numbers and light classics on CBS radio with Andre Kostelanetz’s orchestra. Nicholas Moldovan, too, ended up on the radio: After playing viola in some of the era’s most celebrated string quartets (the Flonzaley, the Stradivarius, the Coolidge), Moldovan joined Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra. Leo Berdichevsky, Zimro’s usual pianist, moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, taught piano, and coached opera, but died in 1931 on his way back from a Russian visit.

Prokofiev, though, left America, eventually returning to the Soviet Union. He sometimes dismissed his Zionist overture (the work’s almost relentless parade of four-bar phrasing struck him, in retrospect, as graceless) but nevertheless orchestrated it in 1934. Largely, Prokofiev remembered, while sitting in artist Pyotr Konchalovsky’s garden, having his portrait painted. “How are the Jews coming along?” Konchalovsky would ask, before suddenly, brusquely instructing the composer not to move.

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The Boston Chamber Symphony performs music of Prokofiev, Rodrigo, and Haydn on Dec. 11, 4 p.m. at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline. Tickets $15-$25. www.bostonchambersymphony.org

Matthew Guerrieri


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.