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Beethoven concerto a study in virtuosity

Mon., Jan. 19, 2009

The third time is a charm. So it proved Saturday when Christopher O’Riley performed as piano soloist with the Spokane Symphony.

The originally scheduled soloist, Gabriela Montero, was lost to a performance for the presidential inaugural, and her successor, Orli Shaham, fell victim to the flu.

The audience at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox gave O’Riley a warm welcome before he played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and an enthusiastic standing ovation with several curtain calls afterward. Conductor Eckart Preu and the orchestra were, as usual, fine partners in the music making.

O’Riley is perhaps better known as the host of the National Public Radio program “From the Top,” where he introduces up-and-coming young performers. But Saturday’s performance demonstrated that O’Riley is a nimble and elegant concert artist, traits required by Beethoven’s concerto.

Ludwig von Beethoven wrote it when he was 23 to introduce his own virtuosity as a pianist to the Viennese public. O’Riley was perfectly at home with Beethoven’s flowing Mozartian passages and completely assured in the dramatic surprises the impetuous young Beethoven dished out to conservative Vienna.

Some of O’Riley’s most impressive moments came in the solo cadenza to the first movement, with its harmonic adventurousness. Also striking were the tender dialoge passages between soloist and orchestra near the close of the Adagio. O’Riley and the orchestra seemed to have great fun with gypsy-tinged high spirits of the finale. So did their audience.

For the concert’s cornerstones, Preu chose two orchestral masterpieces from south central Europe. Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta opened the program, and Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 closed the evening.

At first glance the two might seem worlds apart. Bartók provided rigorous organization to each of his four movements. (“It’s hard to wrap your mind around,” Preu said in a pre-concert introduction.) Dvorák, on the other hand, seems a genial guide through scenes of the Bohemian countryside and social life in this toe-tapping crowd-pleaser.

To me, it seemed Preu allowed Bartók’s intricacies to envelop the listener rather than requiring the listener to keep close tabs on Bartók’s bottomless bag of compositional tricks. I cannot think of another 20th-century work that uses such a variety of instrumental sonorities from such a limited number of instruments. Preu kept those textures transparent, even in the loudest sections. And his players exploited the full range of Bartók’s innovations.

As Dvorák was working on his Symphony No. 8, he said he wanted to write a “symphony different from other symphonies.” Preu let Dvorák have his way. The music did not follow the logic of older symphonic form. Instead, it unfolded like a symphonic travelogue with a new scene at practically every turn of the score’s pages.

The orchestra, on a grander scale than in the Bartók piece, unleashed a great range of colors from the solo flute passages throughout to the triumphal brass whoops at the end. Particularly impressive were the numerous passages of flute solos, beautifully played by Bruce Bodden, and generous helpings of woodwind ensemble playing. The symphony’s brass sections were impressive, too, whether in the ceremonial richness of the Adagio or the whooping bravado of the finale.

This concert with be broadcast tonight at 7 p.m. on KPBX 91.1.


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