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Symphony review: A new take on Dvorak’s piece

People who are not familiar with classical music may wonder why those who are will listen repeatedly to the same piece of music. The simple reason is that a great piece of music in the classical tradition contains far too many potential meanings for any artist or group of artists to encompass. Like life itself, it is inexhaustible.

Those who attended two particular performances of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor realize that. The first was given by the Spokane Symphony Orchestra at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox in February 2008. That performance was conducted by the orchestra’s resident conductor, Morihiko Nakahara. The second performance was Saturday night by the same orchestra in the same hall. The conductor was Eckart Preu, the symphony’s music director. The two experiences were totally, shockingly and magnificently different.

Dvorak’s use of the orchestra in this symphony is characteristically brilliant, with all sections contributing indispensably to the whole. Still, the predominant colors of the work are dark, emphasizing the lower strings and brass. As though to prepare us for this darker sonority, Preu scheduled two works to precede the Dvorak: the First Essay for Orchestra of Samuel Barber (1910-1981), and the Serenade No. 2 in A major Op. 16 of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Both are works of young men, seeking to make their way in the world and composing these works both to hone and display their skills.

The skill Barber shows in his First Essay is considerable, as he has us follow his modest, lyrical theme from its beginnings in the low strings through the entire orchestra, displaying his and the players’ mastery of every instrument. In effect, the work is a compact concerto for orchestra, and the players of the Spokane Symphony responded with soloistic brilliance.

Brahms’ skillfulness in the Second Serenade is, if anything, a bit too conspicuous. Brahms set himself the challenge of composing an extended orchestral work without violins, thus giving prominence to the winds, which usually compete with the violins. The wind writing is certainly brilliant and inventive. Keith Thomas’ oboe has never sounded warmer or more colorful. The Serenade succeeds in displaying Brahms’ academic accomplishments, but its paucity of memorable melody and lack of communicative focus grow increasingly apparent.

There were no such faults to be found with the Dvorak symphony. While the Nakahara performance of 2008 sought balance in sound and structure, Preu’s interpretation sought intensity of expression. Nakahara’s version was a sonorous monument in the symphonic canon, while Preu’s was a cry of anger and defiance at social oppression. Preu chose a slightly slower tempo to allow for fuller expression, and asked the orchestra to dig deeper into their instruments to achieve sharper, more brilliant colors. Dynamic contrasts were heightened, and harmonic tension and dissonance emphasized. Such are the resources of the conductor’s art. The result was to give the piece a new birth.

A recording of this concert will be broadcast at 7 p.m. today on KPBX, 91.1 FM.