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Symphony review: Rich, rare, with dose of intrigue

The Spokane Symphony’s Casual Classics concert Friday started life as a quirky marketing ploy. The program was advertised as “CSI Spokane: Unusual Composer Deaths.” But the evening blossomed into some beautiful music-making with works that are seldom heard.

Morihiko Nakahara, the orchestra’s resident conductor, clearly had fun talking about the idea of investigating composers’ deaths, or deaths arranged by composers, and composers’ attitudes toward death. But near the end of the concert, Nakahara reminded the audience that “in the end, it’s all about the music.”

The program opened with a suite of excerpts from the music Jean-Baptise Lully composed for Molière’s comédie-ballet “Le bourgeois gentilhomme” – the overture and four dances. Before performing the work, Nakahara showed how Lully caused his own death in an on-the-job accident: While in rehearsal of a Te Deum, Lully hit his foot with a long staff he was using to mark time. Infection. Gangrene. Death.

All this had nothing to do with Lully’s tart, sparkling music for “Le bourgeois gentilhomme.” The performance showed Lully as a master of colorful and sonorous orchestral writing with witty rhythmic surprises. And his music really dances because the composer was also an expert dancer. He even danced (in disguise) in the premiere of the work.

Questions about the illness and death of W.A. Mozart have produced a whole library of books and articles – even an Oscar-winning film. Nakahara spoke about the speculation concerning the composer’s final days, then led the members of the Symphony Chorale and the orchestra in a Kyrie in D minor written by Mozart some 10 or more years before he died.

The Kyrie in D minor that everyone knows is from Mozart’s unfinished Requiem. But this earlier work showed Mozart’s mastery of dramatic solemnity long before the Requiem. The large Symphony Chorale sang very clearly with excellent intonation and precision.

That kind of precision and ability to sing in tune was even more rewarding in Carlo Gesualdo’s 1611 madrigal “Moro lasso al mio duolo” (“I die, alas! from my pain” ). This is a short work – three minutes or so – but it was packed with some of the most startling harmonies and biting dissonances created before the 20th century. Your ear wondered just where Gesualdo was going next.

The chorale was led in this work by its director, Julian Gómez-Giraldo, who brought out the madrigal’s neurotic expressiveness. Nakahara noted in his introduction that the composer had killed his wife and her lover and perhaps his infant son and father-in-law, as well. “Gesualdo’s life would be a good HBO series, … but for mature audiences only,” Nakahara said.

Nakahara closed the first half of the concert with Johannes Brahms’ “Nänie,” one of the composer’s most beautiful and least-performed choral masterpieces. In 50 years of steady concertgoing, I have never heard a live performance of this work. It was well worth the wait.

Brahms wrote this lamentation in memory of a friend, the painter Anselm Feuerbach. Brahms chose the text from a poem by Friedrich Schiller, a strong classicist like Feuerbach. “Even beauty must die,” Schiller says.

Brahms’ “Nänie” uses the same comforting, mellow expressiveness he used in the German Requiem of 20 years earlier. And Nakahara brought a warmth to the sound of his instrumental and vocal forces that suited Brahms splendidly.

The concert ended with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 – the nearest to a concert favorite on Friday’s program. The Serenade has always seemed to me a ballet suite in disguise. The perfect reaction to the music and to the performance came in the second-movement Waltz when a listener in my row all but danced on his seat.

This concert will be broadcast on KPBX Public Radio FM 91.1 Monday evening at 7 p.m.

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