The Spokane Symphony brought brilliance and intensity to its season-opening concert Saturday night at The Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox. Flashy works are standard fare for opening night programs, but conductor Eckart Preu and the orchestra’s players gave their near-capacity opening-night audience music of real substance, too, in orchestral works by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich.
Violinist Philippe Quint, originally scheduled to perform here last season, proved well worth the wait playing Glazunov’s Violin Concerto.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Festival” Overture appears often on orchestra programs that need to open with a burst of brilliance. The work solemnly quotes from four Russian Orthodox chants from the Easter service, but it also takes on a nearly pagan energy celebrating the holiday. Preu and the orchestra captured both elements of the work with notable solos from concertmaster Mateusz Wolski and cellist John Marshall. There was also busy fiddling in the string sections along with the tolling bells and sound of brass that allows the overture its festival title.
Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto often comes off as merely a virtuoso showpiece whose sugary romanticism gets whipped into a super-sized musical fudge sundae. How refreshing to hear Quint deliver a straightforward performance that allowed the best qualities of the concerto to shine through. Quint can rise to any virtuoso challenge, and Glazunov furnishes lots of them: scale passages that send fingers flying up and down the fingerboard, multiple-stop passages, flute-like harmonics and fast alternations of plucked and bowed notes – pretty much the encyclopedia of violinistic tricks.
Quint seemed to make easy work of those, and the warmth of his tone, whether playing fast or slow, was astonishing. But he was also a carefully listening partner to the orchestral soloists such as principal horn Jennifer Brummett and clarinetist Chip Phillips.
The audience reacted to Quint’s playing with a prolonged standing ovation that was rewarded by Quint’s encore, John Corigliano’s Caprice No. 5 based on his score to “The Red Violin.”
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 occupied the second half of the concert and is one of the most intense works in the symphonic repertoire. Also one of the longest. In remarks from the podium before the work was performed, Preu noted that Shostakovich wrote the symphony immediately following the death of Stalin in 1953 after an eight-year hiatus from writing symphonies.
Saturday’s performance gave the listener a window into what life under Stalin was like. Tiny melodic ideas nearly strangled each other as they twisted and wove in the first movement. The second, said to be a musical portrait of Stalin, seemed a Witches’ Sabbath in its whirlwind of bullying energy.
The third movement describes a love story of sorts. Shostakovich used the musical notes of his initials answered by a repeated French horn melody using the musical notes of the name Elmira. The Azerbaijani pianist and composer Elmira Nazirova was a composition student with whom Shostakovich had a long intimate correspondence, enjoyed several visits with long walks together, but apparently nothing more. The final movement opens with the weighty seriousness of the first movement but breaks into a circus atmosphere that brings the work to a happy end.
Fine solos and duets were numerous. I especially enjoyed Alaiana Bercilla and Justin Bahrami’s piccolo duet at the end of the first movement and the grumbling combination of bassoonist Lynne Feller-Marshall and contrabassoonist Luke Bakkan earlier in the same movement. Jennifer Brummett’s plaintive horn calls in the third movement made me wish Shostakovich has been more successful in his relations with Elmira.
Saturday’s opening concert was a brilliant beginning to what promises to be a splendid season for the orchestra.