Dazzling Piano Playing Highlights Symphony
Spokane Symphony Orchestra Opera House, Friday
The thrill of an unexpected “find” is one of the gratifications in hearing music. Nothing quite prepared me for the pleasure of Arnaldo Cohen’s playing with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra on Friday night.
Cohen quietly has built a career over the last 25 years. The press materials I saw prior to his appearance with the symphony contained little that indicated Cohen is a truly major artist. But his playing immediately convinced me. His performance in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 revealed a musician who was sensitive to the grand pathos of the composer’s songful themes and a pianist who brought an exhilarating passion to the notorious technical challenges in this concerto.
If one were to watch a silent film of Cohen’s playing, only the dazzling fleetness of his fingers (and the occasional rise of his eyebrows) would show what astonishing things were happening. Cohen indulged in no extravagant gestures, instead producing astonishing feats of pianism with the seeming ease of writing a letter.
Fully as impressive as Cohen’s feats of technical prowess was his ability to make the piano sing in the soaring lyric moments of the Adagio and in the finale.
Cohen proved a great listener, too. When the violins, cellos or an orchestral soloist had the tune, Cohen retired to an accompanying role. Among those outstanding soloists were Margaret Wilds in the concerto’s haunting horn solos and James Schoepflin in the clarinet solo of the Adagio.
Conductor Fabio Mechetti simply proved, yet again, his remarkable skill as an accompanist.
Cohen acknowledged a standing ovation with a breathtakingly fast etude by Mortiz Moskowski, a composer rarely heard nowadays but a favorite of the late Vladimir Horowitz.
Mechetti began Friday’s concert with Haydn’s Symphony No. 80. The wily Haydn always has surprises in store for listeners. Mechetti and the orchestra seemed to have fun with such frolics as the gaps of silence in the first movement and the stunning shifts from major harmony scattered throughout the work.
Mechetti took the final Presto, with Haydn’s persistent offbeat rhythms, at top speed. The orchestral playing did not always have the polished finish the neatness of Haydn’s music requires. Still, the fun was there.
There also was a chancy feeling in the intonation and in the rhythmic complexities of several passages in Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Even with these occasional uncertainties, though, Friday’s performance showed Stravinsky always musically envisioning dance movement, even when writing symphonies. Linda Siverts, the orchestra’s pianist, gave a wonderfully alert performance of the symphony’s concertolike piano part.
Stravinsky’s balletic verve, Haydn’s storehouse of surprises and, above all, Cohen’s brilliant pianism made for an exciting evening.