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Brilliant Beginning Spokane Symphony Orchestra Launches 51st Season With Masterful Performances

Spokane Symphony Friday, Sept. 20, Opera House

Music director Fabio Mechetti led the Spokane Symphony Orchestra in a dazzling beginning to its 51st season Friday night at the Opera House. The concert featured some outstanding playing by pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Brahms’ rugged Second Piano Concerto, along with two 20th-century American classics.

Samuel Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal” opened Friday’s concert with a romantic touch. Those who know Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s masterpiece of drawing-room comedy have always been puzzled to find any relationship between Barber’s 1932 overture and Sheridan’s 1777 play. My guess is there is none.

The overture is a lively, brilliantly orchestrated piece with its roots in 19th-century opera and its branches in American adventure films. Friday’s performance bounced and chattered and, in oboist Keith Thomas’s lyrical solo, sometimes soared.

Playing Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” Mechetti and the orchestra reminded us what a wonderful work Bernstein’s “West Side Story” is. Bernstein’s musical - or is it an opera? - may be the ideal fusion of popular and high culture.

It swings and it sings. The songs like “Maria” and “Somewhere” are instantly memorable. After a somewhat static beginning, Mechetti had his players swinging through the cha-chas and mambos and making Bernstein’s songs touch the heart.

After the intermission, Ohlsson joined the orchestra in what, I’ll have to confess right here, is my favorite piano concerto, Brahms’ Second.

What makes it my favorite? Well, I cannot think of another that so expresses the complexity of its composer’s inner life.

Brahms was a religious person who knew no church, a lover of women who never married, a connoisseur of folk music whose style was of utmost sophistication, a man of deep friendships whose words could cut a lifelong friend to the core.

It’s all there in this concerto, laid out over 50 minutes of densely concentrated music (slightly more in Friday’s performance).

Ohlsson has a long history with Spokane. He played here first in 1972, near the beginning of an important international career, and has returned several times since.

Ohlsson’s performances never fail to interest me, even when I am surprised by his interpretations. I expected more headlong vigor in the scherzo.

Ohlsson took a much more expansive view, like a bard telling some ancient story. I’ve always thought of the finale as a dancing exit to the work. Ohlsson found more storminess there.

The orchestral part is much more than accompaniment, and Mechetti realized its symphonic nature beautifully. Special recognition is due the fine solo playing of horn principal Margaret Wilds and cellist John Marshall.

This was an illuminating performance, with Ohlsson shining a light in corners where I had not realized there were corners. It was not noteperfect, a clot of wrong notes just before the orchestral entry in the first movement and a spot in the scherzo where the Ohlsson became detached from Mechetti’s orchestral accompaniment made me uneasy.

But these were easy sacrifices to make for his tenderness and nobility as he explored the intricacies of Brahms’ inner being.

The orchestral part is much more than accompaniment, and Mechetti realized its symphonic nature beautifully.

The orchestra’s woodwind intonation is too seldom beautiful, but it was lovely in the final chord of the third movement.

, DataTimes