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How explosive is the Prokofiev?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 11, 2012 - What do you do when you have something so volatile, so utterly powerful, that it seems impossible to conceal? And what do you do when that sort of bombshell seems invisible?

It’s like being Steve Jobs in 1976. You are about to launch this earth-shattering thing, and no one is listening. It’s like dressing up (or should I say down?) Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian in long bib-overalls, shapeless sweatshirts and worn sneakers.

It’s like the dilemma Jonna Robertson was facing this weekend. With performances at 8 p.m. April 14 and 3 p.m. April 15, the St. Louis Symphony’s savvy marketing coordinator needed a way to get people in the door to listen to three relatively obscure pieces: Serge Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, op. 45; Sergey Prokofiev’s Scythian Suit; and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

These guys are not your three Bs (Beethoven, Bach or Brahms). In fact, they are not even a C (Chopin or Tchaikovsky – OK, the latter was a stretch).

But Robertson pulled her team together and launched an imaginative and edgy ad campaign to get people’s attention.

In an ad, dubbed “Save the Powell,” Robertson and her folks offered new meaning to the idea of “saving a seat.”

The television commercial shows people reacting in horror as the doors are blown off of the historic symphony building by the music coming from within.

The message? This is no ordinary performance.

Highlights of the program include Ravel’s concerto, which was born of jazz but offers all the classical elements of a concerto and will be deftly performed by pianist Leon Fleisher, renowned for his left-handed virtuosity.

And while his talent and Ravel’s rendering offer an interesting spin on the ivories, it is Prokofiev’s piece that captured the imagination of the Symphony’s marketing team.

A relatively unknown piece, the Scythian Suite has not been performed here for 38 years. In fact, since its first incarnation as a ballet called Ala and Lolly, it has, at times, suffered at the hands of critics. Because it was intended for ballet, Scythian Suite has at its core a sense of the dramatic, with a climax that promises to, well, blow the doors off the Powell.

At least that is the rather cheeky and clever ad the marketing team is using to entice the uninitiated as well as the seasoned audience member to take up a seat for the symphony’s performance this weekend.

While the ad may be hyperbole, it is not without some modicum of truth.

The Scythian Suite offers a booming, voluptuous adventure that will likely shake Powell Hall to its ceiling medallions. This is not a symphony for the faint of heart.

Think cannons (big guns, not Pachelbel) in the first movement, battlements and barbarism in the second, eerie night patrols haunting the third (that was an owl, right?) and raucous victory in the final movement.

This is where teen angst has come to die, and moxy carries the day.

The Scythian Suite has the dexterity and pulse of "Hunger Games," and the drama and passion of "Titanic." “It’s like a musical wrecking ball,” notes Robertson.

And it is that musical dynamite that ramped up the campaign. Robertson said that she and her colleagues were interested in exploring lesser-known pieces.

“We wanted to raise awareness for these particular concerts,” she said. “We also want people to know that we have a sense of humor.”

They targeted the music specifically and the audience generally. “It was not about one demographic,” she said. “We can only do this once a year.”

So the goal was to make the piece more accessible to all — from subscribers to classical novices. “We’re looking for people who are musically curious,” she said.

And how is it working?

“So far so good,” Robertson observed. The audience response has been quite positive, ranging from those expressing interest in attending the concert to those admiring the ad campaign itself."

One tweet from KelseyProud noted, “Piling on to the heap of praise already directed toward @slso’s ‘Save Powell Hall’ marketing campaign. Great stuff.”

And JamesDixson tweeted, “I love @slso's Save Powell Hall campaign. The Scythian Suite is a personal favorite.”

Also, a tweet from alexrossmusic said, “The ingenious thing about that SLSO campaign is how it plays into the default classical mentality of perpetual angst.”

There are countless others.

Robertson is pleased. “It has been overwhelmingly positive,” she said. “Every orchestra is reflective of its own community and its own organization and ensemble.”