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Symphony review: Sublime, sinister and simply stunning

MONDAY, OCT. 11, 2010

The Spokane Symphony’s audiences Saturday and Sunday were given stunning performances of two Russian masterpieces – Sergei Prokofiev’s seldom performed Symphony No. 3 and Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from the ballet “The Firebird, an orchestral standby” – led by music director Eckart Preu.

The concert opened in a world of sanity and order with J. S. Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3. The performance used only three violins, three violas, three cellos and a basso continuo of harpsichord and string bass.

Stravinsky and Prokofiev learned from Bach how to generate a wide range of tonal color using similar-sounding instruments. And how Bach could generate and accumulate energy by repeating rhythmic “cells” of very small numbers of notes.

The performance had a dancelike freshness. Since Bach did not write a slow movement, violinist Mateusz Wolski bridged the concerto’s two movements with a short, improvised cadenza.

Bach’s tidy universe was followed by the dark, tumultuous world of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony. The composer based it on music he composed in the 1920s for his opera “The Fiery Angel,” an opera that seemed destined never to be performed. Prokofiev claimed that the symphony should be considered an independent work unrelated to the story of the opera.

I don’t believe it. Neither does Preu, who, in an introductory speech from the podium and in his preconcert talk, summarized the story and connected episodes in the symphony to the opera’s action and characters.

The opera introduces a young woman who has been tormented since childhood by demonic voices. She develops a lust for a fiery angel (Satan in disguise) who possesses, then discards her. The rest of the opera is the search for her lover and the persistence of those demonic voices. The opera ends with her trial for witchcraft and burning at the stake.

The Symphony No. 3 is Prokofiev’s synthesis of the heroine’s ecstasy and gnawing obsessions. When he was writing the opera, Prokofiev had absorbed the jolting rhythmic effects of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Bartók’s percussive use of nonpercussion instruments, and the “futurists’ ” love of machine sounds.

Preu and the orchestra gave powerful life to the violence and intense drama of this score. The audience Saturday felt the weight of the orchestra’s pounding percussion, growling brass and eerie string and woodwinds.

The blow of the full orchestral sound at the end left the audience stunned. The well-deserved standing ovation happened only after audience members had a moment to recover from the score’s thunderous slap.

This difficult symphony provides a wringing workout for the orchestra players and for the conductor. Bravo to Preu and the orchestra for undertaking this brutal, impassioned score.

Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird” has its moments of terror, too. But “The Firebird” Suite that followed intermission consists mainly of quiet music that came almost like easy listening after Prokofiev’s pandemonium.

Preu and the orchestra made the most of Stravinsky’s transparent delicacy in the opening three movements before charging into “The Infernal Dance of Prince Kastchei and Retinue of Demons.”

The performance showed that the 28-year-old Stravinsky writing in 1910 was not such a radical as people seemed to think. Saturday night his first big success seemed only a step or two away from Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale ballets “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty.”

The encore “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” came from another opera filled with fairy tale magic, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tale of the Tsar Saltan.” The little piece is so familiar it seems trivial. But the performance showed what a brilliantly imaginative orchestrator Rimsky was.



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