The Spokane Symphony and conductor Eckart Preu treated their audiences this weekend by contrasting two unfamiliar works with one that is a staple of the concerto repertoire.
Preu began the concert with the Prelude to Franz Schreker’s 1915 opera “Die Gezeichneten” and followed it with Igor Markevitch’s music for the ballet “Icare,” written in 1933 but extensively revised 10 years later. Neither work has been heard in a Spokane Symphony concert, and rarely anyplace else.
The program’s second half presented the young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein as soloist in Antonín Dvorák’s familiar Concerto in B minor.
Preu told his audience in a pre-concert talk that Schreker was one of the numerous casualties of the Nazi regime in Germany. “Before that, Schreker was, along with Richard Strauss, the most often performed living opera composer in Germany,” Preu said.
The high romanticism of the Prelude to “Die Gezeichneten (The Branded)” made it hard to understand the neglect of Schreker’s music. And the opera’s weird, expressionistic plot would make it a candidate for an enterprising company or director. Schreker uses a very large orchestra, but uses it very subtly. And his style lies somewhere between the operatic language of Richard Wagner and Strauss and those composers of Hollywood film scores in the 1940s and ’50s.
The Prelude vividly paints scenes from the opera, opening with a soaring melody for cellos and viola against a shimmering backdrop of tremolos from the winds and strings. There’s marching pageantry and a roaring climax worthy of swashbuckling film scores such as “Captain Blood.”
Markevitch was a younger contemporary of Schreker, and the model of a modernist having absorbed the traits found in composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and Sergei Prokofiev. In “Icare,” the story of Icarus, Markevitch uses dense layers of often dissonant texture to trace the hero from the awakening of his desire to fly with the birds to his fatal flight too close to the sun. It must have made an effective ballet, although that is no longer in the repertoire. The symphony audience was helpfully guided through the story line with supertitles.
Markevitch creates some wonderful moments, such as the puzzled twittering and jealous flapping as the birds deal with their human rival. The composer suggests the chill wind of the mountaintop where the hero’s wings were found by having brass players blow tonelessly through their horns against a backdrop of flute-like harmonics from the strings.
Both Schreker and Markevitch deserve revivals, and Preu and his musicians proved strong advocates for this unjustly neglected music.
Although the audience was receptive to the unknown works in the concert’s first half, many listeners awaited the comfort of Dvorak’s familiar Cello Concerto on the program’s second half.
There are few performers who hurl themselves into the music they play with such abandon as Alisa Weilerstein. She courts extremes: Her loud passages are delivered with unnerving aggression, and her soft playing whispers close to the edge of inaudibility. Bow hairs break. Rosin dust flies.
Weilertein’s highly individual style is not to everyone’s taste. But having recently experienced a perfect but bloodless performance of a Ludwig van Beethoven concerto in San Francisco, I cheerfully surrendered to Weilerstein’s wild ways. I was not alone, judging from the immediate and prolonged standing ovation Saturday night.
As an encore, Weilerstein played a bouncy, dancing version of the Boureé from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3.