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Classics Series ends with moving beauty

The Spokane Symphony furnished a spectacular ending to its Classics Series on Saturday in the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox. While the streets were noisy with pre-Bloomsday celebrants, the orchestra celebrated “Infinite Love” in an exciting, intense, and often deeply moving program of Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Schumann.

The excitement was enhanced by the replacement of resident conductor Morihiko Nakahara for music director Eckart Preu, the evening’s scheduled conductor. Preu was in the delivery room awaiting the birth of his first child. (Sophia was born at 10:11 a.m. Sunday.)

Nakahara, who had two rehearsals with the orchestra, proved a magnificent stand-in – a reminder of how lucky the orchestra and Spokane are to have two such outstanding conductors on call at the same time.

The program – all standard works – was a challenge, but a challenge beautifully met by Nakahara and the orchestra’s players.

The evening opened with the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” Nakahara made the audience feel the tug of Wagner’s long, spun-out tension with its great surges of sound and episodes of quiet. Wagner’s own pairing of the Prelude and the final aria of the opera is separated by more than four hours of other tension-building music summarized in these two excerpts, which last scarcely more than 15 minutes. Ideally, the opera’s audience learns about yearning. So did Saturday’s audience.

Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy-Overture is surely the most often performed of the Russian master’s work. Familiarity breeds boredom. But Nakahara and the orchestra brought a fresh intensity to it that made me realize (yet again) what a masterpiece it is. It is without a single excess gesture and is delivered with Tchaikovsky’s absolute mastery of orchestration and organizational technique from complex counterpoint to rich but simple melodiousness.

Besides the fine playing from the melodic instruments in the orchestra, what struck me was the splendid quality of the percussion section. The Spokane percussion can crash, bang and thump with the best of them, but the underlying subtlety of their softer murmurs and rumbles are often overlooked. In “Romeo and Juliet” they are crucial. And Saturday the symphony’s percussionists were in their glory.

Robert Schumann worried over, and tinkered with, his Fourth Symphony for 10 years. It is beautiful, but it has given conductors fits ever since it was first performed. The orchestral writing is dense – Schumann felt he could not trust solo winds or horns so he reinforced their solos by doubling with other instruments. He feared that sustained string melodies would go unheard, so he beefed them up with tremolos and repeated notes. Without a fine conductor’s sense of balance, the result can be muddy.

Nakahara, and the diligent preparation done by Preu, gave the performance the winning clarity and graceful lightness that Schumann was aiming for in the symphony, which he wrote especially for his new wife, Clara. Those in the audience who knew this symphony got a refreshing surprise. Those who didn’t received a great introduction to a problematic masterpiece.

Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesleid” (“Love’s Sorrow”) brought this excellent season to a winning finish in an elegant performance featuring concertmaster Mateusz Wolski.


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