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Roge’s Piano Makes Music For Memories

Spokane Symphony Orchestra Friday, Feb. 10, at the Opera House

Pascal Roge plays French piano music incomparably. Roge’s excellence probably carries over into his non-French repertoire, too. But the evidence of his splendid technical skill and musical acumen came Friday in the decidedly French music of Ravel and Faure.

Roge’s approach was evident from the very opening of the Ravel. He created a rippling murmur against which Gale Coffee’s perky piccolo tune could be heard without her forcing the instrument into a shriek. All evening Roge played as though he were performing chamber music with the orchestra’s soloists, coming to the fore when he had the more interesting part, retiring into the background when other instruments took charge.

Ravel’s concerto embodies stunning mood changes - sultry Spanish guitar-like flourishes, dabs of Gershwinesque jazz, the ironic bite you find in Prokofiev. Roge and conductor Fabio Mechetti treated those startling changes as deftly as a fast-moving conversation among friends. Roge was particularly persuasive in Ravel’s languorous slow movement - the kind of sensual experience you hope will go on forever. It doesn’t, of course, but the memory lingers.

Roge and Mechetti made Gabriel Faure’s Ballade a charming companion piece to the Ravel. This short work’s gentle shifting harmonic colors disguise some fearsome technical difficulties. Roge vaulted over these challenges with a grace that took him right to the heart of Faure’s delicate musical poetry.

Mechetti opened the concert with the much more vivid orchestral colors of Joseph Schwantner’s “A Sudden Rainbow.” Schwantner has an ear for orchestral color unparalleled among contemporary composers. The work is tightly organized around recurrences of an angular three-note motif with intervening scurrying figures in the violins, chattering percussion dialog and some decadent orchestral sighs Schwantner inherited from such expressionists as Alban Berg.

Schwantner’s genius for arresting orchestral effects, and his musical inventiveness makes his music always admirable if not always lovable.

Tchaikovsky’s music - for me, at least - is always lovable, even when he is not admirable. His Second Symphony has attracted critical scorn like a magnet. He writes page after page of aimlessly repetitious figuration, and cliches abound - tossing some rhythmic pattern back and forth between winds and strings is an idea for which Tchaikovsky had a serious addiction.

Even at his cliched, repetitious worst, Tchaikovsky suddenly will remind us of his melodic sensitivity and his highly personal gift for harmony and subtle instrumental colorings.

There was some untidy playing here and there, especially in the opening movement. But Mechetti was able to energize much of the tedium of the symphony’s outer movements, and he achieved a nearly Mendelssohnian lightness in the march and scherzo at the work’s core.