The Spokane Symphony chose the name “Russian Drama” for this weekend’s concerts at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
Many, however, may have wondered what was Russian about the works of Ottorino Respighi, an Italian, and Jean Sibelius, a Finn, which made up the first half of the program. In fact, the concert itself provided a very satisfactory answer.
The second half, featuring the brilliant but little-known Symphony No. 1 of Sergei Rachmaninoff, presented no such puzzle.
Respighi learned the art of orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who literally wrote the book on the subject. Although the Third Suite of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances for the lute is played entirely by strings, Respighi achieves tremendous variety of tone color and timbre without calling on brass, winds or percussion.
It afforded an opportunity to enjoy the superb quality of all the strings of the Spokane Symphony. Fine as they were when Eckart Preu first assumed the position of music director in 2004, they have developed remarkably since.
To anyone who has watched many orchestras play, the exceptional commitment among the Spokane string players is obvious.
There is no sign of “back-chair burnout,” evident even in some famous orchestras, in which players more distant from the conductor detach themselves mentally and physically from the performance.
Throughout the Respighi suite Saturday evening, every musician played like a principal, with focus, power and intensity.
Still, special praise is due to Mateusz Wolski, concertmaster, and Nicholas Carper, principal viola, for their masterful handling of Respighi’s solo passages.
The beauty and power of the string sections were complemented by the addition of all remaining orchestral choirs in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 in C major Op. 105, the masterpiece of the program. While Sibelius – who was born in 1865, when Russia exerted great influence on Finland – employs all orchestral instruments, he keeps their voices somewhat separate in the texture of the piece, rather than blending or interleaving them.
There is, for example, a long, beautiful passage for strings alone in the first movement.
When the brass, winds and timpani finally enter, the effect is breathtaking.
Preu and his orchestra managed this and the many other subtle variations in the work with complete mastery. The final effect was exactly what Sibelius wished for: an experience of joy at the endless creative and regenerative power of life.
To those hankering for the Technicolor palette of the Russian orchestral tradition, the Rachmaninoff symphony provided it in full measure.
Rachmaninoff labored for years over its creation, and the result is extreme in its demands on the orchestra.
From the tricky interplay of violas and winds in the Second Movement, to the lyrical duet between violin and cello and plaintive murmur of clarinets in the Third, the piece requires much of individual players.
Yet, when called on to supply the thrill of a full tutti, such as one finds in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the orchestra responded with apparently inexhaustible richness and power.
Despite, or perhaps because of, a quirky program, this was one of the orchestra’s most exhilarating concerts in recent memory.