“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
This simple injunction from Psalm 150 has inspired a great deal of music over the centuries, including each work performed this past weekend by the Spokane Symphony at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
Its music director, Eckart Preu, was raised in Germany’s historic choral singing tradition, having been accepted at age 10 into the Dresdner Kreuzchor, a Dresden boys choir whose history predates the Reformation by 200 years.
Preu has a sound in his ears that springs from that tradition: clear, transparent and essentially vocal, rather than instrumental. During his leadership, the Spokane Symphony has acquired a “breath” that gives life to its music-making and permits its many members to move as one.
They were joined this weekend by colleagues who rely entirely on their breath to make music: the Spokane Symphony Chorale and soloists Dawn Wolski, soprano, and Eugene Brancoveanu, baritone.
The orchestra at first took the stage alone in a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D major, subtitled “Reformation.” The 20-year-old Mendelssohn wrote the piece on commission for a public celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation.
The work is not generally regarded as one of Mendelssohn’s stronger symphonies, lacking the tuneful vivacity of his “Italian” Symphony or the Romantic poignancy of the “Scottish.” Even so, the superb playing of the orchestra, and especially the expressive variety of its phrasing, swept aside any such quibbles. There were passages in the first movement which took one’s breath away, in which the dynamic level dropped magically from the martial braying of the brass to prayerful murmurings of gossamer lightness by the violins.
Again in the third movement, which features a melody suggestive of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” for piano, the violin section displayed a unanimity of phrasing and attack that seemed nearly supernatural. The final movement contains an elaborate fugue, which can sound dry and academic in the hands of other conductors. Thanks to Preu’s “Kreuzchor” expressiveness, it pulsed with life, as did the audience.
The Spokane Symphony Chorale then joined the orchestra for a performance of Anton Bruckner’s setting of Psalm 150. In this, as throughout the evening, the ensemble displayed how much it has grown in refinement and subtlety under Director Julian Gomez-Giraldo.
Its greatest effects were achieved in soft passages, which are the most difficult to perform well. Only the best groups can sing so softly while maintaining a firm and beautiful tone, staying dead on pitch and articulating the text clearly and with meaning.
The hushed singing of the Chorale seemed to grow more lovely and penetrating as the evening progressed, reaching a level in the Requiem of Gabriel Faure that was simply beyond criticism.
The featured partnership of violinist Mateusz Wolski, the orchestra’s concertmaster, and his wife, soprano Dawn Wolski – who recently triumphed in the role of Gilda in “Rigoletto” with the Coeur d’Alene Opera – imparted a unique sense of unity to the Bruckner, the Faure, and to the brief “Song of the Angel” by contemporary British composer John Tavener.
Dawn Wolski’s velvety soprano first emerged from the midst of the chorus in the Psalm 150, to engage in a brief duet with Mateusz. They next appeared together in the balcony overlooking the stage to perform the brief but exquisite evocation by Tavener of the timeless joy of the blessed.
Finally they were both onstage for the Faure Requiem, to which Dawn Wolski contributed a seraphically pure “Pie Jesu.” Brancoveanu, who can wield a baritone voice of operatic size, is also skilled in the interpretation of German art-song, and adjusted his interpretation to fit the more intimate scale of Faure’s masterpiece.
A concert of music that seeks to convey the experience of blessed eternity is not likely to send the audience home with their temples throbbing with excitement. What it can, and did, provide was a deeper appreciation of the power of music to clarify, and perhaps transform, our lives.