Sometimes we need to be reminded of things we already know, such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s role as a revolutionary phenomenon.
Resident Conductor Morihiko Nakahara and the Spokane Symphony made that case in vivid colors Friday at the opening concert of the symphony’s Casual Classics series. The performers were dressed casually, but their performance was anything but casual. It was one of those on-the-edge-of-your-seat events.
What makes such a concert?
Nakahara seems like such a genial host, cracking wise occasionally, but gently giving an easygoing music appreciation lesson.
“We’re going to be looking at the anatomy of a composer tonight,” he told his audience at the Fox, “so I ought to be here with a scalpel and a hatchet. Fortunately, I own neither.”
He had more formidable weapons, his two hands. (I don’t remember his using a baton.) With those, he led the orchestra though Beethoven’s life from the early Septet of 1799 to the Second Symphony of 1802, with pauses at works that influenced Beethoven and composers Beethoven influenced. Such a path risked being yawningly “educational,” but it bristled with vitality.
Nakahara opened with the finale of Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20 – played without a conductor by violinist Mateusz Wolski, violist Nicholas Carper, cellist John Marshall, bassist Patrick McNally, clarinetist Daniel Cotter, French hornist Jennifer Scriggens-Brummett and bassoonist Lynne Feller-Marshal. It was a preview of lots to come in Beethoven – such as his willingness to press the envelope on the playing technique of the period. Wolski was impressive in the showy violin cadenza; Scriggens-Brummett was sturdily secure on the horn calls, which are a challenge on today’s horns and must have been harrowing for valveless horns of Beethoven’s time.
Clarinetist Chip Phillips put his skills to task on a difficult piece by a famous younger contemporary of Beethoven, the opera composer Gioacchino Rossini. Phillips was an easy match for any operatic coloratura soprano as he beautifully winded his way though Rossini’s Introduction, Theme and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra. Clarinetists’ eyes often glaze over when they think of Rossini’s rushing scales, wide leaps and fearsome high notes. But Phillips had the technical aplomb and tonal beauty Rossini requires.
Nakahara rounded out the first half of the concert with composers Beethoven admired and learned from, Luigi Cherubini and Joseph Haydn. Beethoven studied briefly and uneasily with Haydn, learning far more than he admitted at the time. And he openly admired Cherubini as “the greatest composer of my time.”
Nakahara’s performance of the Menuetto from Cherubini’s only symphony showed how Beethoven’s willingness to knock down the mundane ONE-two-three accent scheme of the minuet carried into this work of his admired older contemporary. And the performance of the opening movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 showed where Beethoven may have learned how to begin with an arresting musical gesture and turn the music from dark to light.
The evening’s greatest moments, though, came in the gripping performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, a work that is often short-changed by its proximity to Symphony No. 3 (“The Eroica”). The orchestra seemed on red alert throughout as Nakahara showed how Beethoven played with his audience’s minds in alternations of tension and ease – a trait that turns up in his symphonies all the way to the Ninth and beyond in the late string quartets. It was a proud evening for the orchestra and for Nakahara, who has spent five seasons in Spokane before acquiring his own orchestra as music director of the South Carolina Philharmonic. Friday’s concert was a welcome return.