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Larry Lapidus: Contemporary symphony pieces challenge and delight

MONDAY, OCT. 14, 2013

There was a time in the not too distant past when the surest way for a music director to drive a wedge between the orchestra and the public was put contemporary music on the program.

Leopold Stokowski, the immensely famous director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, tried it and found himself out of a job. The situation became so extreme that Milton Babbit, a composer and teacher at Princeton University, proposed in a 1958 magazine article that his fellow composers observe a “total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from (the) public world to one of private performance.”

That, however, was then. Attitudes have changed so much that today’s American composers of concert music are treating audiences to compositions that are both challenging and delightful, appealing to our thirst for innovation and beauty. As a result, Eckart Preu, music director and conductor of the Spokane Symphony, has chosen to include a generous serving of contemporary music this season.

A splendid example opened the program Saturday night at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. Andrew Norman (b. 1979) composed “The Great Swiftness” in 2010 on commission from the Grand Rapids Symphony. The piece makes brilliant use of the full range of an orchestra’s sonority to evoke the experience of viewing a monumental piece of sculpture, specifically, Alexander Calder’s “La Grande Vitesse,” a landmark of public art in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Norman’s use of glissandi (instrumental slides) to suggest the undulations of the sculpture, and his expanding deployment of the resources of the orchestra to suggest changing visual perspectives, are more than merely clever; they produce a thrilling emotional impact, creating a desire for more.

Fine as the Norman piece is, it was not responsible for filling the hall to near capacity. That honor fell to Zuill Bailey, the exciting American cellist and new artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival who has in scarcely two years managed to capture a place in the hearts of many Spokane music lovers. On this appearance with the orchestra, Bailey was soloist in two staples of the cello repertoire: the Concerto in A minor of Robert Schumann and the Variations on a Rococo Theme by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

In pre-concert remarks, Bailey spoke of difficulties he has experienced coming to terms with the Schumann Concerto, a product of the composer’s later years, in which mental illness was beginning to take a toll on his artistry. Judging from Saturday night’s performance, those difficulties have not yet been entirely overcome.

The intense focus and stylistic mastery so evident in the cellist’s performances of Bach were only intermittently present, as he seemed to wrestle with the work’s structural and emotional incoherence. There were even patches of smudged passagework and questionable intonation, which are most uncharacteristic of this artist. One must except, however, his rendition of the work’s sublime second movement when, in duet with John Marshall, the orchestra’s principal cello, he played with miraculous subtlety and refinement, transporting the audience to a sacred, quiet space.

The Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations found Bailey back on home turf. His tone blossomed, his technique flashed, and his warm, expressive personal voice raised the stature of the work far above the fizzy, flashy bon-bon it is normally regarded as being. He was swept off the stage by a cannonade of applause.

Those who left at intermission made a serious miscalculation. When will people (myself included) learn that a great masterpiece such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony never grows stale or gets old? (Though it may suffer from interpretations that do.) In the hands of a skilled and passionate conductor such as Preu and a great ensemble like the Spokane Symphony, it will spring to life.

The Beethoven Seventh is a demanding piece, requiring tremendous stamina and skill, particularly when, as in this case, the conductor courageously chooses to observe all of the repeats indicated by the composer. These repeats have been ignored by some great conductors out of consideration for their players’ and their audience’s limitations. Preu, however, seems not to recognize these limitations and insists on showing us the full extent of Beethoven’s architectural mastery.

The orchestra responded with playing that seemed to grow in skill, power and discipline throughout the piece, culminating in a joyous finale. It was with disbelief that we saw Preu return to the stage with the score to Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” which the orchestra dispatched with such freshness it might have been the first item on the program.

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

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