Extreme sports – those that emphasize extremes of speed plus a high level of physical exertion – enjoy great popularity. Saturday’s large audience at The Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox was treated to a thrilling evening of extreme symphony.
Few other musical works come close to the extremes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And conductor Eckart Preu’s team of soloists, the Symphony Chorale and members of the orchestra rose to meet Ludwig von Beethoven’s extreme challenges in a way that brought as much excitement to this 185-year-old work as when the ink was fresh on its pages
Just as thrilling, in a startlingly different way, was the work Preu chose to open the weekend’s programs: Johannes Brahms’ seldom-performed setting of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “Schicksalslied.” Saturday’s concert was the first time the Spokane Symphony performed the piece. In sharp contrast to Beethoven’s extremes of length, range, speed and complexity, the Brahms is short but profoundly moving. Hölderlin’s poem contrasts the calm, unchanging world of the blessed spirits on high with the turbulent uncertainty in the lives of humans here below.
Brahms expresses how humans are fated to “reel and fall blindly, like water crashing from boulder to boulder,” as the poet wrote. He uses rushing scale figures punctuated with pounding hammer-blows of cross-rhythms. But instead of ending with Hölderlin’s grim pessimism, Brahms returns to the tranquil music that opened the piece, directly contradicting Hölderlin’s ending. “I have done something the poet didn’t do,” Brahms once admitted.
The members of the chorale sang beautifully and with excellent German diction – a tribute to chorale director Lori Wiest, who is retiring after 11 years, as well as to Preu’s urging.
The orchestral playing in the “Schicksalslied” matched the beauty of the singing. Bruce Bodden’s flute solo in the orchestral postlude was especially memorable.
Then Beethoven. What struck me so forcibly Saturday was the way the composer succeeds in extracting every drop of expressiveness from even the simplest musical idea. Case in point: In the second movement Preu drove home Beethoven’s relentless use of a galloping rhythm, scattered with volleys from the timpani, until the mind’s ear nearly drops from exhaustion. Bravo to the symphony’s timpanist Adam Wallstein in what came dangerously close to turning into a timpani concerto.
Despite the achievements in the first three movements, what everyone waits for is the finale with its oceans of choral sound and vocal solo parts taxing even the most experienced soloists. The vocal quartet – soprano Mary Dunleavy, mezzo soprano Lucille Beer, tenor Erik Fenton and baritone Richard Zeller – all have notable operatic careers. They were imposing as an ensemble and powerful as individuals.
Zeller proved ideal in stature and sonority to halt the instrumental music with Beethoven’s words, “Oh, friends not these tones …,” which serves as a prelude to the composer’s incorporation of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.” Fenton brought just the right touch of comedy and seriousness to the Turkish march section. And Dunleavy and Beer soared to the sweet (but very difficult) ornamented cadence on the words addressing Joy, “All men become brothers wherever your soft wings are spread.”
Saturday’s audience responded to this splendid performance with an immediate, well deserved and prolonged standing ovation – a great ending to Preu’s fourth classics season with the orchestra.