The Spokane Symphony provided its large audience Saturday at The Fox with a long, intense evening of music-making, with gripping performances of powerful works by Johannes Brahms and Bohuslav Martinu leavened by the charm of Antonin Dvorák.
This season, conductor Eckart Preu has presented some spiky challenges to his audiences. He threw down the gauntlet early, opening this weekend’s performances with Martinu’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani. The concerto was the composer’s response to the political storm clouds brewing over his Czech homeland. Ironically, it was finished the same day, Sept. 29, 1939, that the Munich Pact was signed, an agreement that virtually guaranteed Czechoslovakia would be invaded by Nazi Germany.
“It is amazing how many different things music can express to us at the same time,” Preu remarked in a pre-concert talk.
Martinu modeled the Double Concerto on Bach’s “Brandenberg” Concertos, taking advantage of the great contrasts of density and transparency of strings divided into ten parts (in place of the usual five) while adding the ring and lyricism of the piano and the rumble and rhythmic thrust of the timpani. Pianist Ivana Cojbasic and timpanist Adam Wallstein were both outstanding. I especially admired Cojbasic’s ability to shift from the chattering running passages and dissonant jumping chords of the first movement to the tolling bells of lament in the Andante.
Preu and his two orchestras did spare the audience Martinu’s anguished dissonances or relentless rhythms of the finale. Instead they made the Double Concerto an impossible-to-forget musical statement.
By contrast, Dvorák’s Symphony No. 5 marks a 34-year-old composer’s appreciation of nature, dance and song. The orchestra’s woodwind players did notably fine work. Dvorák himself would have applauded clarinetists Chip Phillips and Daniel Cotter in their ability to convey the composer’s open-air freshness in the clarity and rhythmic jauntiness of their playing.
Dvorák wanted to remind listeners that he was an opera composer. He had written five operas before completing this symphony and would write five more before revising it. So the finale is stormier and more complex. Neither Preu nor his players let us forget that the woods were still nearby and people there were still dancing and singing.
Following intermission, the orchestra was joined by pianist Vladimir Feltsman, who has been a regular guest soloist since emigrating from his native Russia. The chosen work was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, a work the pianist describes as “maybe the greatest piano concerto ever written anywhere by anyone.”
Brahms’ Second is an enormous work – more than 50 minutes long – and its difficulties challenge the greatest pianists and musical minds. Neither the stamina the concerto requires nor its technical hurtles fazed Feltsman. Without any seeming effort he could make a tornado of sound. But more impressive to me, he could skitter lightly through Brahms’ finger-breaking double notes or bring a rich singing tone to the concerto’s melodies.
Saturday’s performance did raise the question that always occurs to me whenever I hear this long, four-movement concerto: Is it really a concerto, or a symphony with an elaborate piano part, or something else entirely?
A listener has to smile at Brahms writing to a friend the day of the concerto’s premiere, “I have written a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo.”
Feltsman’s and Preu’s concept seemed to lean toward the idea of a symphony with a very elaborate piano commentary. The soloist makes observations and decorations; he questions or even contradicts what the orchestral music states. Whatever it is, it’s magical. Nothing in this massive piece is more captivating than the Andante with its cello solos beautifully played by John Marshall and spaciously commented on by Feltsman.