Splashing finds its place amid instruments
The Spokane Symphony began 2008 with a splash Saturday in a concert featuring Tan Dun’s engagingly theatrical “Concerto for Water Percussion” and Johannes Brahms’ monumental Symphony No. 4.
The concert was a test of Spokane concertgoers’ sense of adventure. A concerto less than 10 years old and a long work by Brahms asked too much of some – there were rows worth of empty seats as some people, sadly, decided to pass it up. Their loss.
Conductor Eckart Preu opened the program with Charles Griffes’ “The White Peacock,” a sultry 1915 tone poem that was clearly a tribute to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”
Preu’s idea, probably, was to set up an atmosphere of exotic anticipation for the concerto that followed. The Saturday evening performance I heard seemed too brisk to evoke the dreamy Roman afternoon described in William Sharp’s embarrassingly bad poem that inspired Griffes. There was some beautiful solo playing by the first chair woodwinds, though.
If audiences have heard the music of Tan Dun at all, they may have encountered it in his score to the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Tan’s “Concerto for Water Percussion” uses just about every imaginable sound you might expect to get at a well-equipped kitchen sink – and then some. Preu passed down a roll of paper towels for those in the first row, just in case.
Percussion soloist Maria Flurry, along with Spokane percussionists Paul Raymond and Rick Westrick, entered in from the back of the darkened hall playing an eerie prelude. Getting to the stage, they faced large transparent plastic bowls of water in which Flurry and her associates splashed their hands, and plunged inverted water glasses, played gongs with beaters and bows in and out of the water, and used flip-flops to tap large plastic tubes as they were submerged and withdrawn from the water. Flurry also clicked sticks together and played a vibraphone that had dimes taped to some of the bars. (Yes, dimes. I looked.)
And the orchestra players made uncommon tappings and squeals, too, along with the more usual instrumental sounds. The concerto’s three movements flowed seamlessly like water.
A mere description makes Tan’s work sound silly. But concerto proved to appeal as much to the eye as to the ear, and there was lots to watch. Even the reflection of the water’s vibrating surface on rear of the stage added to the drama. For me, the water concerto proved an uncommonly successful theater piece. Flurry was a brilliant advocate for Tan’s work.
The performance received a standing ovation from its somewhat startled audience.
For those listeners who came to hear traditional symphonic music, Preu gave them their money’s worth with Brahms’ large and powerful Fourth Symphony. Preu and orchestra players furnished a colorful, passionate account of a work whose composer has been wrongly accused of being colorless and cold.
Preu pointed out in his preconcert talk, and brought out in Saturday’s performance, how skillfully Brahms began the symphony by seeming to open a door to find the work already quietly under way. And the tension never fully subsided until its rousing conclusion some 40 minutes later.
There were many fine “little moments,” such as the second movement’s opening horn passage, the lyrical passages for cellos, the touching flute solo in the middle of the finale and the noble brass chorale near the end. But most impressive was the play of instrumental colors and extreme contrasts of dynamics in this score.
Thus, the evening’s only real disappointment was the presence of too many empty seats and the absence of some listeners who were in greatest need of an orchestral adventure.