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Review: Romance conquers Spokane Symphony

 The romantic movement that dominated European culture in the 19th century produced countless musical masterpieces that continue to draw audiences to concert halls. Three diverse examples of musical romanticism formed this weekend’s program for the Spokane Symphony at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. Music director and conductor Eckart Preu once again demonstrated the ideal balance required to interpret romantic music: a fine ear for instrumental color, a sure sense of musical structure and, perhaps most important, a determination to communicate powerful emotions to his audience.

A fascination with the mysterious, remote world of myth ran through the romantic movement. Finnish composer Jean Sibelius settled early in his career on the Kalevala, the great repository of Finnish myth, as a major source of inspiration. The most famous product of this is his “Swan of Tuonela,” from the “Four Legends of the Kalevala,” which on Saturday night received its first performance by the Spokane Symphony.

The piece portrays a mythic swan said to move serenely through the waters surrounding Tuonela, the Finnish isle of the dead. Sibelius evokes the mournful spirit of the bird by setting a poignant melody for English horn against a spare, shimmering backdrop, which Preu feelingly described in his pre-concert lecture as “the musical equivalent of silence.” Sheila McNally, the orchestra’s superb English horn player, revealed once again an amazing range of colors that too often remain locked within that instrument. Her sensitive playing was accompanied nobly by principal cellist John Marshall.

The cello then came to the fore in Sir William Walton’s Concerto for Cello. As soloist, we were fortunate to have Alban Gerhardt, whom Travis Rivers accurately described in this paper as “one of the world’s great cellists.” Composed for great Russian-Jewish cellist Gregor Piatigorsky in 1956, when romanticism was decidedly out of fashion, the Walton concerto is an unjustly neglected masterpiece.

While Piatigorsky’s recordings present the work as a showcase for virtuosity, Gerhardt brought to it the same intense inwardness we experienced so memorably in his last appearance with the symphony in the Elgar Cello Concerto, which he selflessly performed on the day he learned of his mother’s death.

In addition to deep spirituality, Gerhardt deployed a commanding technical arsenal to vanquish the extreme challenges presented by Walton in the second movement. In response to a richly deserved standing ovation, Gerhardt offered his exquisite playing of the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G.

The evening concluded with Robert Schumann’s much-loved Symphony No. 3 in E flat, the “Rhenish.” Here, Preu’s keen ear for balance made transparent what many have found opaque in Schumann’s orchestral writing. The superb clarity of phrasing in the strings, especially the cellos (often inaudible in performances of this piece) allowed Preu to carry his audience along on a journey of untrammeled joy and exuberance, crowned by the thrilling playing of the horns, which brought audible gasps of pleasure during the performance and “bravos” afterward.

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

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