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‘Alpine Symphony’ showcases talent

Conductor Eckart Preu led the members of the Spokane Symphony to a Straussian summit Saturday as the orchestra opened its 2008-09 season.

Richard Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony” represents some breathtaking challenges, but the Spokane players rose to the occasion.

Preu opened the weekend’s pair of concerts with Mozart’s witty Overture to “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” Mozart took obvious delight in introducing the exotic sounds of Turkish music in this short work, with various jingling and thumping percussion and unusual sounds from the woodwind instruments. The overture made a smiling opening to a concert that would soon take on a far more serious tone.

Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä proved a winning advocate for Bruch’s often-played Concerto in G minor. The soloist told the audience in a pre-concert talk that she had learned the concerto when she was very young and used to play it often. Then she gave it a rest. She resumed performance of the work only this season.

Her early work on the concerto gave Vähälä a firm grip on Bruch’s technical demands. But the perspective of those years of “rest” brought a new depth to its full-hearted romanticism, without the exaggerated mannerisms many violinists resort to. Vähälä’s tone is warm and full, never gritty. And her exchanges with the orchestral solos from the bassoons and horn, for example, were as collegial as Bruch would have wished. Preu led the accompaniment with the skill Spokane audiences have come to expect from him in the past four seasons.

Most concertgoers have no expectations about Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony.” Very few have ever heard a live performance of it. Usually, only the biggest orchestras (and those with the biggest budgets) undertake this hourlong work. Strauss’s specified instrumentation adds up to more than 100 players. In this weekend’s performances, Preu managed effectively with about 90.

The “Alpine Symphony” is not really a symphony at all despite some commentators’ efforts to group its 22 short sections into something resembling a 4-movement symphonic pattern. It is more like a slideshow of the kind of 12-hour-long Alpine hike taken by Strauss when he was 15, with its experience relived musically by the composer at 50.

Strauss was proud of the descriptive sonorities he was able to create. “At last I have learned to orchestrate,” he wrote to a friend. Listeners who know the orchestral humor of his earlier “Till Eulenspiegel” and the pathos he achieved in “Don Quixote” just have to smile at this boast.

But in the “Alpine Symphony,” Preu and the orchestra showed exactly what Strauss was bragging about. The burst of orchestral light at the work’s “Sunrise” and the depth of “Elegy,” with its low brass, organ and muted strings, or the rainstorm, wind and thunder of the “Storm” are all textbook examples of how a master handles a huge orchestra for colossal or tender effects.

The concerts mark the debut of the Fox’s new Allen electronic organ donated by symphony board member, engineer and organist Richard Tudell. Strauss thought the organ part vitally important to the success of this work, and the symphony’s new keyboard player, Mina Somekawa, showed how much heft and color the new instrument brought to the work.

Preu and his musicians can be proud of having met Strauss’s arduous challenges.

“This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” the conductor said before the performance. It would be too bad if he holds to that statement.