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Review: Piano mastery makes Chopin concerto transcendent

Mon., Feb. 14, 2011

Pianists with dazzling technique grow thick on the ground. But pianists who combine  technical glitter with an ability to make the instrument sing with the tonal colors of a great vocalist are rare. The Spokane Symphony had just such a soloist for its concerts this weekend at The Fox.

Orion Weiss is not a household name, but he ought to be. Weiss’ performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor went straight to the musical core that lies behind Chopin’s cascades of notes and florid ornamentation. And the collaboration between Weiss and conductor Eckart Preu made many in the audience forget – temporarily, at least – how stingy the 20-year-old Chopin was in giving compellingly interesting music to the orchestra.

For me, Weiss’ ability to make Chopin’s showers of notes ring so clearly was fully as much a matter of his skill with the pedals as with the fingers. A look at his right foot revealed that he depressed the sustaining pedal to various degrees of depth and often made a kind of pedal vibrato with fluttering depressions and releases. These gave continued body to the sound without smearing it, even in the concerto’s fastest passages. Chopin’s lyricism glows in all three movements. But in the Romanza that serves as the concerto’s centerpiece, Weiss had the piano singing like a coloratura soprano in the arias of Bellini’s operas Chopin loved so much.

Preu began the weekend’s concerts with Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” – a kind of musical elaboration of a poem by Richard Dehmel. An English version of Dehmel’s poem was projected in helpful supertitles, allowing the audience to follow a couple through a moonlit walk in which the woman reveals a painful secret and the night becomes transfigured through the loving reassurance of the man who accompanies her.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I had never been a fan of this work, finding it like swimming in a sea of molasses. More careful listening to Preu and the orchestra changed my mind. Schoenberg did use dense Wagnerian harmonies and sometimes thick melodic tangles to chart the poem’s atmosphere and the couple’s feelings. But a good performance shows how classically satisfying Schoenberg sets those scenes and makes the human feelings flow. The playing I heard Saturday was just such a performance.

Maybe fear of the name Schoenberg caused a significant number of later arrivals to Saturday’s performance. Too bad. Perhaps, like this writer, the fearful ones might have been won over.

A notable feature of the weekend’s concerts was a rearrangement of the orchestra’s seating on the stage. The cellos and basses faced the audience and the brasses were arrayed on risers across the back of the stage. This gave an added depth to the orchestra’s sound that was particularly welcome in Robert Schumann’s “Spring” symphony, which concluded the concerts.

Schumann’s orchestration has come in for abuse from critics who poke fun at the composer’s eagerness to have more instruments playing most of the time to make certain important parts would be heard. The composer seemed unwilling to trust conductors to achieve the right balance. Important conductors such as Mahler and even unimportant ones have tried to “fix” Schumann’s orchestration. That doesn’t work.

Preu let Schumann be Schumann, and the result on Saturday, at least, had a springlike freshness and clarity. The players sounded fresh and played with energy, but they were visibly exhausted by the same experience that exhilarated the audience. Preu and his players fully deserved the standing ovation they received at the end. 

This concert will be broadcast on KPBX Public Radio FM 91.1 this eveningat 7 p.m.


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