Pianist Gabriela Montero made her two-year-delayed first appearance with the Spokane Symphony at The Fox on Saturday, and the fire and charm of her performance made the wait seem worthwhile.
The orchestra was led by its music director, Eckart Preu, who provided orchestral dividends in works by Janacek and Debussy.
Montero was contracted to perform with the symphony in January 2009, but she was released to premiere a new work by John Williams at the presidential inauguration. Two years later, she made it to Spokane in a near-inauguration of her own: She gave Spokane the second performance she has ever given of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor; her first took place only a week ago with the Cape Cod Symphony.
“I have about 35 concertos in my repertoire,” she said in a preconcert talk. “But somehow I’ve never played the Schumann concerto before.”
It was clear within a minute into the first movement that Montero was determined to set a very personal stamp on the concerto. The movement is already improvisatory-sounding. Montero referred to it as “mercurial,” reflecting both the dreamy and assertive sides of Schumann’s complex personality. The pianist’s approach – pulling and pushing at the tempo – made it sound even more ad-lib.
But Montero’s playing showed controlled tonal luster and a commanding technique alongside her willful tempo-bending. I suspect that as Schumann’s concerto remains in Montero’s repertoire, much of that willfulness will disappear.
Some of the most beautiful playing came in the short Intermezzo that serves as the concerto’s second movement. Here Montero engaged in a delicate dialog with the cello section, later joined by the violas. Throughout the concerto there were fine solos from the orchestra’s principal wind players.
The Rondo finale was a whirlwind of energy where Schumann unfurls a fast waltz sometimes interrupted by a march written in waltz time. It is treacherous territory for both pianist and conductor. The audience responded to the performance with an enthusiastic standing ovation. And Montero responded with an invitation for an audience member to sing something on which she could create one of her trademark improvisations.
An excellent soprano in the audience began the chorus of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” a song from 1908 that takes a tricky turn at the end of its first phrase. Once Montero caught it, she turned the old Tin Pan Alley tune into a Chopinesque nocturne before sliding it into some rich harmonies by Rachmaninoff – a brilliant display of intelligence, grace and imagination.
Preu opened Saturday’s concert with Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta, a five-movement tribute to the composer’s adopted hometown, Brno, now in the Czech Republic. The work calls for a stageful of musicians – even in the reduced orchestration by Joseph Keilberth that Preu used. And Janacek threw down the gauntlet to the players, making nearly impossible technical demands. The Spokane players rose to those challenges and took the audience through the Sinfonietta’s raucous rhythms and moments of haunting lyricism to the strange love-hate relationship Janacek had for Brno.
Preu closed the concert with an evocative performance of Claude Debussy’s three sea pictures, “La Mer,” in which the audience could nearly smell and feel the sea. The acoustics of The Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox played fully as large a role in the success of the performance as the players and Preu himself. Some of the most beautifully effective moments of “La Mer” call for whisper-soft playing. The orchestra did it, and the audience could hear into the softest dawn music as easily as the stormy uproar of the wind and the waves at their angriest.