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Review: Spokane Symphony rises to guest conductor’s challenge

Guest conductor Daniel Hege led the Spokane Symphony in a program that let the players’ range of colors and flow of energy illuminate every piece. Both the orchestra and the audience gave Hege an enthusiastic ovation at the Saturday performance I heard.

Guest conductors always want to make a good impression. Some take the safe route of familiar works done in an easily conventional way. Not Hege. He chose challenging works and challenged the players to dig deep into their workings.

Hege began with Maurice Ravel’s piano suite “Tombeau de Couperin,” four of whose six movements the composer arranged for orchestra. The challenge Ravel presents is achieving the clarity of the piano version without the incisiveness of the piano’s tone. Hege took the faster movements at a clip which matched or exceeded Ravel’s metronome marks in the piano score.

The result worked, all right, but seemed closer to Debussy’s impressionist wash than the sharp crystalline quality Ravel expected. But the playing was beautiful still. And it well displayed the skills of the principal woodwind players on whom Ravel places severe demands. Particularly impressive throughout the suite, and the evening’s others works, was the piquant playing of oboist Keith Thomas. But just as striking was the playing of the pairs of flutes (sometimes flute and piccolo), clarinets and bassoons.

Hege followed Ravel’s suite with Mozart’s “Little” G minor Symphony – the one that opens and closes the score of  Milos Forman’s film of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.” The tempos, again, were very brisk, but the stormy energy of this work by the 17-year-old Mozart was intensified by Hege’s drive. Though there were some rough moments in the horn section here and there, there was nothing careless about Hege’s drive. The conductor and players paid careful attention to the details of balance and to Mozart’s care with accents and contrasts of loud and soft. 

Hege began the second half of the concert with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” Overture, one of the most famous musical travel pictures. Mendelssohn wrote the overture as a result of an 1829 visit to the cave on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. The composer was fascinated by the cave’s strange echoes, basalt columns (like those around Spokane) and the varying moods of the sea. This overture helped popularize Fingal’s Cave as a tourist attraction, high seas notwithstanding.

Saturday’s performance made the trip easy and grand. The featured clarinet duet was excellently played by Chip Phillips, and Daniel Cotter was especially fine. 

Sibelius’ Third Symphony ended the program. This is a very strange piece, full of abrupt changes of orchestral color and shifts of tempo and mood – a difficult piece to make hang together. Hege succeeded magnificently in capturing Sibelius’ love for contrast between almost raw, reedy sounds in the winds and the warmth of the strings’ lyricism in the split personality of the Andantino, and letting the audience relish in comfort the chill factor Sibelius’ orchestration elicits so well. It’s Finland, don’t forget.

Hege proved to be an extraordinary guest conductor, putting together carefully thought-out detail work into a commanding and cohesive whole. Visually he was interesting to watch, as well, as he used a wide variety of gestures – some with and some without the baton – to get the quality of sound he was after. He was a welcome guest.

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

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