Surprisingly, neither audience nor performers seemed to be having as much fun as they should have.
Somehow I’ve always missed the Spokane Symphony’s New Year’s Eve Gala. Not deliberately, mind you. Music critics like a party. It wasn’t snobbery, either, believe it or not. I like light music, the kind of music found in record stores bins labeled “semi-classical.”
Last Saturday night I went to the symphony’s New Year’s Eve party, staying just a few minutes into 1995. Surprisingly, neither audience nor performers seemed to be having as much fun as they should have. The New Year received … well, a staid welcome at the Opera House.
I have spent the past few days wondering why.
The ingredients for a gala were in place.
There were colored lights playing against the back of the stage as the orchestra played (a fiery red for the Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld”!). Everybody was given funny hats and noisemakers. Balloons fell from the ceiling at midnight, and we all sang “Auld Lang Syne.” Elegant, tasty desserts were served at intermission.
The redoubtable Arnie Carruthers Trio with vocalist Annette Gorseth were in the Opera House lobby for intermission and post-concert dancing and listening. (People there really did seem to be having fun.)
And, it being New Year’s and all, there was champagne.
My colleague Jim Kershner, who has covered past New Year’s concerts, tendered some advice: “Try a sip of the champagne,” he said. “If you can swallow it on the first try, it’s better than last year’s.”
I tried the champagne and it proved quite drinkable, though a true connoisseur might have found fault with its slightly almondy taste.
At the center of the event, of course, was the Spokane Symphony, led by its music director, Fabio Mechetti, with soprano Tamara Schupman and baritone Frank Hernandez. The music was from 19th-century Vienna and Paris and 20th-century Broadway.
The performances were nothing less than professional. And there’s no denying Mechetti’s magnificent musicianship. It brings freshness to the most familiar works. Hernandez’s robust baritone is always a pleasure to hear. And the lightness of Schupman’s voice is wonderfully suited to the wistful tenderness of a song like “Heather on the Hill” or to the the duet “It’s Almost Like Being in Love.”
It was jolting, though, to note that the singers were sometimes reading from the printed score rather than singing from memory. Those Cole Porter and Lerner & Lowe favorites are songs everybody knows by heart. The orchestra players seemed stern, playing with that look of knitted-brow concentration they would accord some new and bafflingly complex work. The music they were playing sounded like Strauss and Offenbach; unfortunately it looked like Schoenberg and Messiaen.
The mood of a concert is set in its opening number. Conductors spend a lot of time agonizing over its selection. Mechetti probably wanted to create a sense of anticipation with the quiet opening of Nicolai’s Overture to “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In my view, he misjudged the effect. The Nicolai overture is a beautiful piece, and it eventually does turn lively. But not soon enough.
The sedate atmosphere was sustained by the gentle lyricism of Johann Strauss’s “Emperor Waltz.” The witty Mozartian chatter of Schupman and Hernandez in the “Papageno, Papagena” duet arrived too late to energize the evening.
Bear in mind that the New Year’s Eve Gala begins late, starting at 9:30 p.m. rather than the usual 8 o’clock concert time. The audience needs to be bumped out of its drowsiness into a fun mode. The orchestra, too.
Mechetti might have better uncorked this gala with some bright-eyed Strauss polka or a particularly boisterous Broadway overture. There would have been time later in the evening for romantic lyricism and nostalgic contemplation.
Like aerial acrobatics and rodeo riding, making fun music in public is hard work, but it darned well better not look that way.
Happy New Year!