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Concert shows range of Russian composers

MONDAY, OCT. 6, 2008

A first-time visitor to European Russia often is struck by the flatness of the land. But conductor Eckart Preu showed Spokane Symphony audiences this weekend at the Martin Woldson Theater that the Russian musical landscape abounds with surprise vistas.

The concerts featured music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, enhanced by the presence of a splendid rising American violin star, Stefan Jackiw.

Preu opened with a witty, fast-paced performance of Prokofiev’s Suite from his 1921 opera “The Love for Three Oranges,” an outrageously surreal take on Carlo Gozzi’s 18th century play. I could not begin to give a brief summary of the plot, but the suite gives glimpses of scenes and characters like stills from an old movie.

The Spokane woodwind and brass players gave crisp energy to Prokofiev’s staccato chattering in the opening “Argument of the Know-It-Alls” and the later March and the Scherzo. There was tenderness, too, in the combination of Bruce Bodden’s flute and Chip Phillips’ clarinet, and the solo viola of Nicholas Carper in the “Scene of the Prince and the Princess.”

Prokofiev’s contemporary (and rival) Stravinsky spoke sneeringly of “The Love for Three Oranges.” But Stravinsky’s own Violin Concerto, written 10 years later, showed some similarities. The tartness of Stravinsky’s writing for woodwinds and brass as soloists or in pairs, trios and quartets made a great foil for the violin soloist. And Jackiw, at 23, already is an eloquent spokesman for this spiky concerto.

Stravinsky seemed determined to stay away from the traditional Russian virtuoso concerto, dripping with luscious melodies and splashy technical display. Jackiw capitalized on the works’ transparent textures and interaction the composer provided in chamber-music-like exchanges such as those with the bassoons of Lynne Feller-Marshall and Luke Bakken in the Toccata or the flutes of Bodden and Justin Bahrani in the Aria No. 2.

Jackiw’s playing has not only the technical assurance one expects of a concert artist, but a striking ability to vary the “color” of his violin tone to match or contrast with the orchestral soloists. I was especially moved by his performance of the concerto’s lamenting Aria No. 2, a movement that shows Stravinsky could, too, wear his heart on his sleeve.

After intermission came something completely different, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. This symphony represents the style Prokofiev and Stravinsky were rebelling against – those luxurious waves of massed string tone, the unending heart-tugging melodies and harmonies, and rhythmic flow that can vary from barely moving to rushing avalanches of sound.

The performance I heard Saturday reminded me how much Rachmaninoff loved the solo horn and solo clarinet. He, who rarely was caught smiling, would have smiled at the beautiful horn solos of Jennifer Scriggens-Brummett and Phillips’ tender way with the Adagio’s famous clarinet solo.

Preu shaped the performance of this sprawling symphony beautifully. That said, I disapprove of cuts in performances of great works, even great works that might seem uncomfortably long. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 uncut would take 60 to 65 minutes. I question whether saving 10 or 12 minutes makes Rachmaninoff’s rhetoric more effective. Still, the performance sang sumptuously, cuts or no.

This concert with be broadcast at 7 p.m. today on Public Radio KPBX 91.1.


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