The Spokane Symphony enters a new era Saturday celebrating its new home in the refurbished Fox Theater.
Internationally known operatic mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade will join the symphony and conductors Eckart Preu and Donald Thulean in a gala program designed to show off the orchestra’s new space. The program features music by Beethoven, Mozart and Respighi, along with arias from French operas and the world premiere of a work by Hans-Peter Preu, Eckart’s older brother.
Von Stade has sung in virtually all the world’s great opera houses, made numerous orchestra appearances (singing last with the Spokane Symphony in 1999), and she has made more than 70 recordings ranging from complete operas to lighter fare.
Born in Somerville, New Jersey, about halfway between Philadelphia and New York City, von Stade received her vocal training at New York’s Manhattan School of Music and made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1970. She sprang into the international limelight the following year with her appearance as Cherubino in “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Santa Fe Opera.
Saturday, Von Stade will sing arias from two of her signature Mozart roles: Cherubino, and Zerlina in “Don Giovanni,” as well as arias from French operas (another of her specialties) by Jacques Offenbach, Ambroise Thomas and Jules Massenet, ending with the “Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.”
Former Spokane Symphony music director Donald Thulean will be revisiting the Fox stage Saturday to conduct the first performance of Hans-Peter Preu’s “A Fanfare for the Fox.” Thulean, who headed the orchestra from 1962 to 1984, shepherded the symphony from a community orchestra to a fully professional ensemble. During his tenure, the orchestra’s performances moved from the Post Street Theater to the Fox in 1968, and finally to the Spokane Opera House created for the 1974 World’s Fair.
Eckart Preu, the symphony music director since 2005, will conduct the other works on Saturday’s gala, ending with Ottorino Respighi’s brilliant orchestral showpiece “The Pines of Rome.”
While von Stade, Thulean, the brothers Preu and the members of the Spokane Symphony will be the musical attractions of the gala, the evening’s real star is the grand building itself, officially named The Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
The theater is so named because Myrtle Woldson gave the orchestra a $3 million gift to honor her father, a pioneer railroad and business magnate who arrived in Spokane in 1893 and live here until his death in 1958.
The Fox opened in 1931 and served as Spokane’s premier movie house as well as a hall where concerts, theater, and vaudeville acts were performed.
By the 1970’s, when this writer was first hearing concerts at the Fox, it was already past its glory days – visually a little threadbare and acoustically less than ideal for music listening.
When I heard concerts in the Fox back then, my seat for symphony performances was in the upper balcony directly in front of the movie projection booth. On symphony nights, the custodial staff listened to hockey games in the booth. In the music’s quieter passages, it was easier or me to follow the progress of the Spokane Flyers than the Tchaikovsky adagio coming from the stage.
After experimenting with listening from my old seat, as well as hearing the orchestra from other sectors of the hall, wherever I sat, the music was clear and vibrant. Alas, for hockey fans, the projection booth is gone.
The visual impact of the “new” Fox is stunning, from the lighted star on the ceiling of the lobby to the art deco sunbursts on the walls of the auditorium itself. In addition to the highly impressive visual refurbishing, the hall underwent acoustical improvements suggested by the engineers of Jaffe Holden, one of the world’s leading acoustical consultants
“You have to remember, the Fox was designed as a movie theater, not a concert hall,” acoustician Mark Holden said at a symphony rehearsal in late October. “And the sound that makes movie dialogue easy to understand is not the sound that makes hearing music a satisfying experience.”
Jaffe Holden worked with the architects and contractors responsible for the Fox renovation to turn the movie house into a concert hall that would give audiences the listening pleasure that eluded them in the “old” Fox and in the Opera House.
Among the changes made were a steeper slope of the rise in the main floor, the elimination of the furthest back rows under the balcony of the main floors, and the gentler slope of the rows of balcony seats. In addition to the enlargement of the stage, a wooden shell was added to the back of the stage for sound reflection and resonance along with reflective panels at the rear of the auditorium and curtains on the side that can be closed if absorption is needed.
Preu tested the new hall in a series of six “tuning rehearsals” – sessions that allowed him to experiment with varying the orchestra’s seating arrangement and trying the placement of soloists on the stage.
“The acousticians from Jaffe Holden made suggestions about changing the angle of the stage shell and also about placement of the musicians on stage,” Preu said. “We experimented with different types of soloists, with the orchestra alone and with the chorale. It was great to have the advice of three engineers there who were used to doing this.
“I am really happy about this new hall. And everybody in the orchestra seems happy, too,” Preu said. “There are three things the players need to hear: they themselves, their entire section and then across the stage. There are things we still have to figure out. But we can deal with those.”
When asked about amplification or “electronic enhancement” of the symphony performance at the Fox, Preu was adamant. “Absolutely not. It’s not necessary because the orchestra sounds great in there. There was some discussion about this early on, but we rejected that. If there are flaws, we’ll deal with those flaws. Pops concerts are another matter, of course, but for the classics we’ll deal with the ‘real thing.’
“And it will be phenomenal.”
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