Miami Meets Britain’s Extraordinary Alex

Arts / Article

Saturday night’s New World Symphony concert at the Knight Concert Hall introduced South Florida to an 18-year-old British musician who has already made a serious name for himself. And not just recently, either, hard as that may be to believe.

Alexander Prior, son of a Russian mother and British father, has studied for the past four years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and he’s just finished work on a special conducting fellowship at the Seattle Symphony as well as a summer at Tanglewood (that’s him above, conducting the Royal Philharmonic of London, in a photo by Laurence Gibson from Prior’s website).

He has completed more than 40 pieces in his brief life, according to his website, including four symphonies, two ballet scores, two piano concertos, a violin concerto (dedicated to teenage violin prodigy Michael Province, a Palm City resident), and Velesslavitsa, a quadruple concerto for two violins, piano, cello and orchestra.

Frankly, this is an astonishing amount of work to have completed at this age. The excerpt of Velesslavitsa available on his website, as a press comment there says about his writing, is redolent of the world of late Russian Romanticism. There is something about that aesthetic in general that appeals to him; in one of the interviews he’s done elsewhere he talks about his love for the pre-1917 culture of Russia, and certainly there is something enormously heartfelt about the music being written at that time.

He also has a very long list of pieces he’s conducted, and they include wide swaths of the repertory from John Adams to J.S. Bach, including the operas of Carl Nielsen, Debussy, Janacek and Bartok; the symphonies of Kalinnikov, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner and Dvorak; concertos by Copland, Mendelssohn and Haydn. It’s an enormously impressive list, and the style he demonstrated Saturday night in Miami was that of a person who is comfortable on the podium and has spent some serious time there.

The New World played two Hungarian Dances by Brahms for him, including No. 10 in F, which rarely gets an outing, and at one point he called for a little more speed from the violins, throwing out his right arm and beckoning briskly with his hand. His appearance was a surprise; he came out after a brief introduction by Michael Tilson Thomas, who called him an “extraordinary composer” and suggested that composition and conducting were only part of his abilities.

Adam Sweeting of Britain’s Telegraph newspaper hinted at the range of his intellect in an interesting interview with Prior (which you can see here) that gives us some more details about the musician’s life and a good bit of the flavor of what he’s like as a person (Sweeting writes that talking to him is “a bit like listening to someone speed-reading Wikipedia aloud,” which is hilarious). What you also get from the piece is a strong sense of how single-minded he is, and there’s no doubt that’s played a big role in his success so far.

I’m betting that Tilson Thomas will bring Alexander Prior back soon to the New World, and perhaps with one of his own pieces. He certainly has many to choose from, and if in future years Prior is a much bigger name worldwide, those of us who saw him last weekend will have an interesting benchmark by which to measure his progress.