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Review: Spokane Symphony ends on high note after dreary start

Another intriguing installment in the Spokane Symphony’s exploration of contemporary concert music appeared in Saturday’s concert at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, in the form of Anna Clyne’s ambitious piece for large orchestra, “Night Ferry.”

Composed last year on commission from the Chicago Symphony, where Clyne is resident conductor, “Night Ferry” possesses many attributes that merit attention. Clyne demonstrates great skill in employing difficult and complex techniques of composition, and demands the highest level of virtuosity of every player in the orchestra, which she received Saturday night from the Spokane Symphony.

Regrettably, the object of all this admirable skill and effort proved to be a dreary, tedious composition. The composer has said she was drawn to explore cyclothymia, a mental illness resulting in mood swings that afflicted the composer Franz Schubert and the poet Robert Lowell. She also drew inspiration from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which narrates an allegorical journey from despair to hope.

In his remarks from the stage, conductor Eckart Preu said he discerns in the work a contest between good and evil. All of this led this listener to expect an exciting variety of strongly contrasting elements. In fact, the piece grinds monotonously from turbulent anxiety through gnawing doubt, to terminate in bleak despair. Though the audience accorded “Night Ferry” a respectful hearing and rewarded the orchestra with well-earned applause, one doubts that many will wish to take this journey again.

Like people released from an airless cell into the sunlight, the audience enthusiastically greeted the reappearance onstage of Preu and piano soloist Jon Nakamatsu for a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 (1909).

Preu and his orchestra participated as full partners in the performance, making the most of Rachmaninoff’s ingenious contrapuntal writing, as in the inspired duet between Nakamatsu and bassoonist Lynne Feller-Marshall at the very outset of the piece. As performed Saturday, the orchestral introduction to the Second Movement, in which a sighing, melancholy melody is shared sequentially by strings, winds and brass, was a perfect embodiment of Russian Romantic style.

Would that one could say the same for Nakamatsu’s playing. While admirably fleet and accurate in his performance of the taxing solo part, he never matched the orchestra’s mastery of that style. To a large degree, this was due to the quality of sound he produces. The Russian school of piano technique, of which Rachmaninoff was both product and exemplar, expects from the player a fullness, warmth and variety of tone rivaling that of an orchestra.

To my ears, Nakamatsu produced a tone that, while admirably pure and focused, was lacking in size, warmth and color. Even without those attributes, however, his intense, energetic performance brought the audience to its feet, demanding, and receiving, an encore in the form of Frédéric Chopin’s popular Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor.

Like a lion leaping upon its prey, the orchestra devoured the final piece on the program, Paul Hindemith’s pompously named “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber” (1943). There was nothing pompous about the passion, wit and exuberance with which Preu and the orchestra mowed down the thickets of Hindemith’s virtuosic orchestral writing, notably in Bruce Bodden’s jaw-dropping performance of the flute obbligato in the third movement.

They showed that critics who disparage Hindemith’s work as dry, soulless and academic may instead be reacting to hearing less sympathetic performances than we were treated to. The vigor and unanimity of phrasing as each choir of the orchestra took up the theme of the first movement propelled everything that followed to a joyous conclusion.

Once again, one must remark on the ability of this group of gifted individual artists to speak with a common accent and to sing with a single voice.

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

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