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Review: Pavel Baleff’s Spokane Symphony performance delivers, grandly

Those Spokane music lovers who braved the icy streets, overcame the terror of finding Arnold Schoenberg’s name on a concert program and made their way to the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox were richly rewarded Saturday night by the auspicious Spokane debut of guest conductor Pavel Baleff and the excitingly fresh playing by the Spokane Symphony he inspired.

Each of the composers on the program – Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Schoenberg – were serious, not only about their music but also about its status in the history of the German musical tradition. The program was planned to cast fresh light on that tradition.

Schumann wrote his Symphony in C major in 1847. He uses the introductory motif from Josef Haydn’s last symphony throughout the piece, as if to symbolize its roots in the German symphonic tradition. Employing his enormous gifts as a composer, Schumann adds to Haydn’s wit and vitality the quintessentially Romantic qualities of personal fragility and struggle that were alien to Haydn’s world.

Since the Middle Ages, German composers used their works as we use resumes: to prove their skill and secure employment. Brahms, whose insecurity nearly matched his genius, deliberately chose the theme of his Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873) from a completely unknown divertimento unearthed by a librarian he had befriended. In choosing this totally obscure source (which appears now not to have been written by Haydn), Brahms meant to publicize his commitment to “ancient music.”

Brahms went on, however, to demonstrate the breadth of his skill and imagination by refracting the theme through a host of new lenses – melodic, harmonic and instrumental – that would have crossed Haydn’s eyes. Saturday’s performance was especially notable for the exquisite soft playing Baleff drew from the orchestra. The sound seemed to come not from human effort, but from the air itself.

Schoenberg said he composed his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in 1933 to “correct the defects” of one of the 18th century’s greatest composers: Georg Friedrich Handel. He did this by recomposing one of the German master’s works: the Concerto Grosso Op. 33 No. 7. The result is a work sometimes charming, sometimes witty, but always odd. It nevertheless provided a splendid platform for displaying the brilliance of the Spokane Symphony and the four principal string players in the featured quartet: Mateusz Wolski (concertmaster), Amanda Howard-Phillips (second violin), Nick Carper (viola) and John Marshall (cello).

All members of the quartet played superbly. Particularly outstanding was the authority with which Wolski executed his difficult part. His complete command of the music and his instrument seemed to bind the quartet together, giving it the ability to confront the orchestra when necessary, and to express the conductor’s positive, coherent understanding of this curious work.

This and the other successes of the evening did credit to everyone involved, but especially to the remarkable conductor, Baleff, whose appearance in Spokane was a gift that the orchestras of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia might well envy. Great orchestras possess the ability to project a unique sound-world brought to them by an extraordinary conductor. From the first notes of the Brahms, it was plain that the Spokane Symphony was such an orchestra, and that Baleff was such a conductor. The phrasing, deeply expressive, and the sound, both warm and transparent, seized one’s attention immediately.

Baleff’s molding of a phrase is a wonder to see and hear. His command of the long line kept the audience leaning forward in its seats, wondering whether the long, gossamer thread would ever break.

Schumann reported that the writing of the aching third movement of his Second Symphony (adagio expressivo) so exhausted him emotionally that he required weeks to recover. Baleff’s impeccable pacing and nanoscopic ear for instrumental balance allowed us to enter fully into Schumann’s world of Romantic longing. His ability to let phrases breathe and build tension naturally allowed both orchestra and audience to feel the glory of the symphony’s final triumph.