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Symphony, flutist take listeners through storm of emotions

The Spokane Symphony showed how quickly music can change moods. Conductor Morihiko Nakahara, the symphony associate conductor, led a crisply responsive orchestra in works that covered a lot of emotional ground.

Nakahara opened the weekend’s concerts – I heard the Sunday matinee version – on a frivolous note with Samuel Barber’s youthfully exuberant Overture to “The School of Scandal.” The play with characters such as Sir Oliver Surface, Mrs. Teazel, and those two gossips, Lady Sneerwell and Mrs. Candour, inspired the 21-year-old Barber to write a short overture that showed off his gift for good tunes and colorful orchestration. The spirited performance included a beautiful lyric solo by oboist Keith Thomas.

The concert’s mood turned from gaiety to touching seriousness with Christopher Rouse’s Concerto for Flute. The young American flutist Christina Jennings made the work a moving experience. The work was written in 1993 for Jennings’ teacher, Carol Wincenc, but Jennings made it very much her own.

Rouse shaped the Concerto for Flute in an unusual structure with three slow movements interspersed with two fast movements. He opens and closes the work with an almost improvisatory, meditative anhran (a Gaelic word for “song”) in which Jennings seemed as though she were playing a wide-ranging shepherd’s pipe, or maybe a penny whistle, against a background of low strings. The soloist sound was captivating throughout Rouse’s wide-ranging melody.

The second and fourth fast movements evoked a march and a jig, respectively, and allowed the soloist and the three orchestral flutes in the fourth movement to show their fleet fingers and quickly articulate tongues.

The concerto’s centerpiece is a powerful lament for James Bulger, a two-year-old English boy kidnapped and murdered by two 10-year-olds, the news of which emerged as Rouse was writing this concerto.

Bassoonist Lynne Feller-Marshall provided an elegiac introduction and epilogue with the flute solo’s singing lament against a background of quiet chords from the orchestra’s strings. There were hymn-like chorale featuring string and brass and a shattering funeral march.

Jennings and Nakahara seemed at one in the performance I heard, convincing me that Rouse has written one of the 20th century great concertos for flute.

Nakahara turned to one of the masterpieces of the 19th century for the program’s second half, Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. This has to be one of the most restless works in the orchestral repertoire – beautiful but never settled, folk-influenced but always having the gleam of commanding sophistication.

Nakahara had full command of the symphony’s uneasy shifts of mood from the stormy opening to its seething finale.

The orchestra’s woodwind section provided some fine-sounding ensembles such as the combination of oboes, clarinets and bassoons opening the slow movement.

Both the audience’s enthusiastic applause and the orchestra player’s stamping feet at the end acknowledged what a fine conductor Nakahara is. Spokane and its symphony are lucky to have two excellent conductors.