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Review: Spokane Symphony opens on elegant note

The inaugural concert of the Spokane Symphony’s 2013-14 season at the Martin Woldson Theatre at the Fox was exciting both in itself and as a bridge into what one hopes will be a new era for the orchestra.

It’s notable that every one of the 10 concerts in the Classics Series includes works written in the 20th or 21st centuries. This weekend’s concerts, conducted by music director Eckart Preu, included one work of the 19th century, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, and two of the 20th: American Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto and Hungarian Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

The Tchaikovsky Capriccio follows the composer’s progression from dejection to exaltation. The opening section is a mournful funeral march, reflecting his downcast state. While played by the Spokane Symphony with full and attractive tone, this section was somewhat undercharacterized by Preu, and so the ensuing progress toward a renewal of life was deprived of some of its effect. There was no resisting, however, the sheer pleasure of hearing the orchestra moving at full tilt through Tchaikovsky’s brilliant orchestration and infectious melodies to the work’s triumphant conclusion.

To perform the Barber Concerto, the orchestra was joined by the distinguished Russian-born violinist Ilya Kaler. The violin does not confront or oppose the orchestra in this piece, but functions as the orchestra’s soul, introducing material to them, joining them in its development, and guiding them to increasingly intense levels of lyricism.

One could hope for no more elegant or persuasive a soul than Kaler. Kaler’s playing is characterized by sovereign technical mastery employed in interpretations that are balanced and universal, rather than theatrical or egocentric.

Violinists in the orchestra must have marveled at Kaler’s use of several types of vibrato (finger, wrist and arm), sometimes on a single note, to achieve the expression he desires. While the piece is not thought to be terribly difficult, Kaler’s traversal of it was like a textbook on the art of bowing, culminating in the unrelenting moto perpetuo of the final movement. At the end, our bravos were rewarded by another modest display of perfection: the Gavotte en Rondeau from J.S. Bach’s E major Partita for Solo Violin.

To credit every player who contributed outstanding work to the performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra would require printing the entire roster. One must mention, however, the superb bass section, led by Patrick McNally, now vividly audible thanks to changes Preu has made in orchestral seating. The bass section laid the foundation of the piece at its very opening, and did so with great sensitivity and beauty of tone. All the woodwinds have important parts in the piece, but one has not heard those for principal oboe (Keith Thomas) or principal flute (Bruce Bodden) played more beautifully, or more hauntingly. Timpanist Adam Wallstein, whose part is remarkably difficult, also played with utter poise and mastery.

The Concerto for Orchestra, a timeless monument to the strength and resilience of the human spirit, was composed during the lifetime of many of those in the hall Saturday night. This alerts us to the power lying within the contemporary musical community and sharpens our eagerness to hear what the coming season will bring.

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


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