Conductor Eckart Preu and his players in the Spokane Symphony and singers in the Symphony Chorale ended their Classic series Friday wreathed in glory. It was a concert that brilliantly spanned nearly three centuries of music from the 18th century Italian master Antonio Vivaldi to Jennifer Higdon, a young American still writing in the 21st century, with a stopover in the mid-20th century in the work of Francis Poulenc.
Preu began his season finale with Higdon’s orchestral tone picture, “Blue Cathedral.” The conductor prefaced the performance by saying, “Whenever I announce a work by a contemporary composer, I can feel the audience wince and see the fear rising in their eyes.”
Higdon’s work allayed those fears. “Blue Cathedral” produced an otherworldly atmosphere of floating sound, yet the work never seemed directionless. The work opened with very soft bell-like sounds and quiet solos beautifully played by flutist Bruce Bodden and clarinetist Chip Phillips. As the work gained intensity many of the orchestra principal players also joined with impressive solos. At the height of wave of sound, the celestial quiet of the beginning returned, accompanied with muted strings and the sound of softly ringing Chinese Reflex Bells and the eerie sound of tuned water-filled glasses being rubbed along their rims. The work was wonderfully effective besides being friendly to the ear.
The two principal works on the program were settings of the text of the Roman Catholic Gloria by Vivaldi and Poulenc. Both these works featured some of the finest singing I can remember hearing from the Spokane Symphony Chorale. The chorale has more than 100 members, but the crisp diction and good intonation made them seem much smaller and more flexible for the intricacies of Vivaldi’s baroque style, then gave the ensemble the needed punch for the requirements of Poulenc’s 1960 Gloria.
Canadian soprano Nathalie Paulin and American mezzo Lucille Beer, soloists for Vivaldi’s Gloria, were both excellent, and their voices made them effective foils in their duet “Laudamus te.” Paulin’s bright sound contrasted with Beer’s darker quality, enabling them to achieve clarity in Vivaldi’s closely intertwining lines. Paulin’s smooth brightness presented an effective contrast with the oboe solo of Keith Thomas in the lilting siciliano movement “Domine Deus.”
Equally effective was the earthy quality of Beer’s pleas for mercy in the “Agnus Dei” later in Vivaldi’s work against the cello obbligato of John Marshall.
If Vivaldi’s Gloria can be characterized as a baroque concerto for voices and instruments, Poulenc’s setting of the same text can be thought of as a symphony for voices and instruments. The addition of a full complement of woodwinds and brass gives Poulenc’s orchestra the richness of an enormous French pipe organ.
I especially admired the tenderness with which Paulin infused even the most high lying parts of her solos and the unerring accuracy she achieved in Poulenc’s daunting upward leaps in “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris.”
Poulenc’s Gloria ends in an unearthly quiet Amen. That effect would have been a stunning end to Eckart Preu’s first season with the Spokane Symphony. But Preu had a more brilliant ending in mind. In answer to a well-deserved standing ovation, he led the orchestra and the sopranos of the chorale in Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” a heroic end to a season of great accomplishments.
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