The well-dressed crowd that poured into the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox for Saturday’s opening concert of the Spokane Symphony’s 2011-12 season was rewarded by an evening of music-making of exceptional quality.
Music Director Eckart Preu chose a program of certified crowd-pleasers: George Enesco’s Rumanian Rhapsody No. 1 (1901), Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (1865) and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830).
These works are so irrepressibly tuneful and well-crafted that, were the commitment of Preu and the orchestra to their art and their audience not so great, they could have phoned in their performances and gotten no complaints. On the contrary, they brought the music to life in every measure through skill, craft and focus that never flagged.
One could tell by the way Preu strode onstage for the preconcert talk that we were in for a high-energy evening. He spoke about these compositions as though he had just unearthed them, and couldn’t wait to reveal them to the world.
When he was joined by the evening’s featured soloist, the splendid Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker, the sense of excitement only grew, as Parker described how important the Grieg Piano Concerto was to him and to his career.
The plaintive, languorous phrases from Chip Phillips’ clarinet that opened the Enesco Rhapsody were predictably superb, as was the ensuing dialogue among the winds. What was not predictable was the perfect matching of tone and phrase at the entry of the strings.
The strings can swamp the winds at this point, obliterating the impression of rustic vitality Enesco wanted. But here, as elsewhere, Preu and the orchestra pursued and achieved unity, consistency and thrust.
The tricky transition, for example, from the first, slower sequence of dances to the feverish second half was masterfully managed. One experienced an organic whole; the effect was exhilarating.
Hearing that Preu had never conducted the Grieg Concerto, and that Parker had performed it more than 180 times, one could reasonably have feared disaster. Instead, Preu led the piece from the inside, as if having known it all his life, and Parker played it as though discovering the beauty of each phrase for the first time.
The phenomenal acoustics of the hall, which Parker described as the most beautiful he had ever played in, allowed the refinement of Preu’s conception and the exquisite execution of the players to be heard with complete clarity.
Grieg is commonly described as a miniaturist, and his Concerto usually impresses as a sequence of beautiful moments, rather than a unified utterance. Preu’s mastery of tempo relationships, however, and Parker’s symphonic conception of the piano part (even in the cadenza) revealed the piece as thoroughly coherent and emotionally satisfying. At the conclusion, the pianist leapt up excitedly to embrace the conductor, as the audience cheered its approval and gratitude.
Still, the evening’s crowning achievement was the Symphonie Fantastique. One cannot enumerate the myriad beauties of this performance; however, one must remark on the total mastery with which Sheila McNally, English horn, and Keith Thomas, the orchestra’s principal oboe, performed their duet in the third movement. I doubt that anyone in the hall, excepting them, drew a breath. Further, the exquisite dying fall of the phrasing in the strings throughout the third movement would be the envy of conductors of far more famous ensembles.
Still, it was Preu himself who dominated the performance. His attention to detail never faltered; but it was, again, his remarkable ability to fuse those details into an unbroken emotional arc that that carried his audience from one emotional climax to another, leaving them thrilled, exhausted and inspired, just as Berlioz would have wished.