This spring in Spokane has been fertile for fanciers of fine cello playing.
The Northwest Bach Festival concluded on March 18 with a performance of J.S. Bach’s cello suites 1-3 by Zuill Bailey that left everyone present slack-jawed in wonder at how much beauty could emanate from an old wooden box. Just last Monday, Israeli cellist Amit Peled joined the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra in a performance that alerted everyone to the presence of a major artist in our midst. Finally, Eckart Preu and the Spokane Symphony Orchestra invited celebrated cellist Joshua Roman this past weekend to join them for the finale to their 2011-’12 season.
At the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Saturday, Roman performed the Variations on a Rococo Theme Op. 33 of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and took the featured cello part in Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote” Op. 35. Like the extracts from Manuel de Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat” ballet that opened the program, they require tremendous virtuosity from both performers and conductor.
Tchaikovsky composed his Rococo Variations principally as a vehicle for a cellist he had befriended to prove his chops. It has continued to serve that purpose for such greats as Emanuel Feuermann, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline Du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma. As to speed, accuracy and agility, Joshua Roman need give little ground to these illustrious predecessors; his mastery of the instrument is complete.
The major offering of the evening was “Don Quixote,” which teems with fearsome challenges; among them for the principal viola and tenor tuba, whom Strauss asks to represent the character of Sancho Panza. Both parts require the highest level of musicianship, which was delivered in abundance by the tenor tuba (regrettably unnamed in the program) and by principal viola Nick Carper, a superb artist.
The technical virtuosity Roman exhibited in the Rococo Variations was more than matched by the deeper interpretive qualities he brought to “Don Quixote.” Phrasing, tone color, dynamic shading – all were employed masterfully to create a full portrait of the tragicomic figure Strauss “translated” from Miguel de Cervantes’ prose.
This performance of “Don Quixote” benefited from Preu’s characteristic skill in giving a sense of shape and forward direction to long, complex orchestral works. There were times, however, when one wished he would relent a bit in pushing ahead, as expressed by his peculiar practice of lifting the baton on a downbeat, and allow more breath to the moments of rapture and stillness that are so important in the work, especially in the ecstatic Third Variation and the finale (“The Death of Don Quixote”), which was robbed of some of its poignancy.
In the de Falla group, meticulous dovetailing of phrases by the strings and brazen virtuosity from the trumpets and horns had the audience leaping to its feet even before the soloist walked onstage. So did the thunderous conclusion of Tchaikovsky’s “Overture 1812,” dished up as a fitting encore to a great season of music-making.