The Spokane Symphony opens its 2008-09 season with some musical mountain climbing as the orchestra play Richard Strauss’s seldom-performed “Alpine Symphony” Saturday evening at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox. The concert will be repeated Sunday afternoon.
Violinist Elina Vähälä will join the orchestra as soloist in Max Bruch’s popular Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. Conductor Eckart Preu will open the concert with Mozart’s Overture to “The Abduction from the Seraglio.”
“I chose the ‘Alpine Symphony’ for several reasons,” Preu said. “First, I wanted a big work to balance the big work that will close our season, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But I wanted to have something that would not be so familiar to our audience as Beethoven’s Ninth certainly is.”
“Big” and “unfamiliar” may both be understatements as words to describe the “Alpine Symphony.” Strauss calls for a very large orchestra with expanded woodwind and brass sections, a large percussion section with wind and thunder machines, and exotic and unusual instruments such as the Heckelphone (a kind of bass oboe) and cowbells. The work is programmed so infrequently that neither Preu nor this writer have ever heard a live performance of it.
“But the piece is important to me personally, too” Preu said. “When I was in the army, I listened to a recording of it almost every day. It was somehow soothing for me – all those colors Strauss could achieve. And the contrasts – not only the big Alpine storm he has boiling up, but moments of fragile, almost eerie, tenderness as well. And it is difficult, not the kind of thing any orchestra can ‘ease into’ the season with. I think our audience will love it.”
For something much more familiar, the conductor and soloist Elina Vähälä have chosen one of the most familiar and often-played violin concertos, Bruch’s Concerto No. 1 in G minor.
Vähälä is equally well known for her performance of violin standards and for her advocacy of new music. She has played the premieres of concertos by Aulis Sallinen and Curtis Curtis-Smith as well the Scandinavian premiere of John Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Concerto.
Vähälä was born in the U.S. but grew up in Finland where she began studying the violin at age 3. She made her concert debut with the Sinfonia Lahti at 12 and won the Lipinsky-Wieniawski Competition in Poland at 15. She completed her studies at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki 1999 and won the Young Concert Artists Award, which sponsored her New York debut the same year. Since then Vähälä’s career has taken her to concerts with major orchestras as well as recitals, many of them with her husband, pianist-conductor-composer Ralf Gothóni.
“I think it will be very interesting to hear what an American-Finnish violinist brings to Bruch,” Preu says. “Bruch is a ‘true German Romantic’ and his violin concerto is something we can all say, ‘Oh, I know that.’ But when you start really looking deeply at the score, there are amazing things you’ve never realized were there, some of them really progressive. If you want to, you can even hear some of Richard Strauss in Bruch’s writing.”
The Spokane Symphony begins this season with eight new players. In all, about 20 new players have been hired since Preu came in 2004. “Sometimes a music director comes in with a broom to clean house,” Preu says. “but these additions have occurred in a very natural way through people retiring or moving. It’s surprising how smoothly these changes have taken place.”
Preu will give a pre-concert talk about the music on this weekends concerts one hour before curtain time at The Fox as a part of the Gladys Brooks Pre-Concert Lecture series.