Spokane Symphony, conducted by Gunther Schuller Sunday, Aug. 13, at The Festival at Sandpoint
Conductor Gunther Schuller turned the Spokane Symphony into three different ensembles Sunday at The Festival at Sandpoint: one for industrial-age music, one for lighthearted jazzy scores and still a different one for torrid romanticism. This all-Russian concert at Memorial Field again demonstrated Schuller’s perceptive stylistic insight and the orchestra’s willingness and ability to give this amazing musician what he wants.
This winning combination does not happen all that often. (This in spite of the unseasonable cold that sometimes played havoc with good intonation and orchestral precision.)
Some gifted conductors and fine orchestras can, together, create a distinctive sound. Almost anyone can recognize the creamy richness of the “Philadelphia sound” built by Stokowski and Ormandy or the hardedged bite of the “Chicago sound” made by Reiner and Solti. What Schuller insists upon and, to a remarkable degree achieves, is a different sound quality of every composer’s work.
Schuller began the program with Alexander Mosolov’s 1928 paean to industrial progress, “The Iron Foundary,” a clanking, banging, grinding evocation of a factory’s noise, heat and sparks with its only melody pealed out nobly by eight French horns. The score subtitles it “Machine-Music.” Schuller turned Mosolov’s orchestral factory into three minutes or so of enjoyable racket.
Like all Europe, the Russians took to jazz in the 1920s and ‘30s. Somehow Dmitri Shostakovich is not a name one would couple with a jazz interest, but there it was in a foxtrot and a waltz Shostakovich wrote in the style of the hotel orchestras of the period, in his arrangement of Vincent Youman’s “Tea for Two” and in the cheeky Polka from “The Golden Age” ballet.
The Polka barely survived a shaky start. But elsewhere Schuller had the Spokane Symphony sounding like the Paul Whitman Orchestra, swinging lightly over elegant solo playing by saxophonist Gregory Yasinitsky, clarinetist Virginia Jones, trombonist Dave Matern and concertmaster Young-Nam Kim.
The concert’s two major works, contrasting sides of Russian late romanticism, were written by those arch-rivals at the Moscow Conservatory, Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Both were outstanding pianists and highly regarded composers.
Let me first confess I consider Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy” a pretentious and inadequate description of that odd mixture of sex and religion the composer modestly had in mind. That said, Scriabin succeeded in weaving a complex musical texture out of fragmentary ideas and restless harmonies. Schuller made this tossing and turning, panting and sighing sound quite sensuously physical. Larry Jess was outstanding in the work’s taxing trumpet solos.
Unlike Scriabin, Rachmaninoff never attempted to be conspicuously “modern.” His Symphony No. 3 seems like a romantic retrospective, not only of the composer’s own works, but the music of others including a fleeting reference to the “Forest Murmurs” from Wagner’s “Siegfried.” Even so, this symphony is a wonderful work filled with those great arching melodies and crisp rhythmic figures which Rachmaninoff made his trademarks. Despite the evening’s cold temperatures, Schuller and the orchestra gave notable warmth to the sound while providing a clarity to a texture as inspiring as Rachmaninoff’s.