Is Eckart Preu the ideal music director for Spokane’s symphony orchestra? Signs point to yes.
Nowadays, a music director must not only be a compelling conductor, but must show a gift for building an audience through personal charisma and creative programming. Finally, he or she must be able to bring the orchestra to such a high level of excellence that it can master new and challenging scores in just a few days’ rehearsal and play them as to perfection.
Saturday’s performances at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox showed Preu excelling on all counts.
The evening’s program consisted of five pieces written by composers from the Western Hemisphere, all illustrating the interaction of cultures that has gone into the development of American music.
Aaron Copland’s “El Salon Mexico” (1936) is nothing if not poly-cultural. Composed by a first-generation, Brooklyn-born Jew who studied theory and composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, the piece was Copland’s first attempt at creating a distinctly American voice. Here, Copland uses that voice to narrate his impressions of a visit he made in 1932 to a Mexican bar with his friend, Carlos Chavez, much as George Gershwin had done with “An American in Paris” (1928).
Though the piece is easily enjoyed and understood, it is not easily performed. The orchestra, however, overcame its rhythmic complexities with apparent ease, delivering a performance full of character and instrumental color. Principal trumpet Larry Jess, who just last Sunday entranced an audience at the Met with his bel canto baroque duets with Dawn Wolski and the Spokane String Quartet, deployed broad phrasing and a blowsy tone that perfectly captured the character of Copland’s seedy bar.
Carlos Chavez’s 1937 Symphony No. 2, or “Sinfonia Indio,” presents another example of a composer who was schooled in the musical techniques of Western Europe reaching into the origins of his country to attain a unique and independent voice. Ironically, in seeking to convey the simplicity and directness of the music of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, Chavez’s symphony requires terrific virtuosity of the orchestra and conductor. None of this was apparent to the audience, however, which had the impression of experiencing directly the power and vitality of Chavez’s inspiration.
Ross Holcombe, the orchestra’s principal trombone, was the soloist for John Mackey’s brilliant and compelling “Harvest: Concerto for Trombone” (2009). With his easy smile and boyish good looks, Holcombe does not seem too formidable a figure – until, that is, he raises his instrument to his lips. What issues from that horn is an incredible galaxy of tone and emotion: gruff and sweet, nasal and throaty, powerful and pleading, with every shade put at the service of the music. Though the composer describes an arcane program for his piece, its musical precursors are familiar to anyone acquainted with the big band adventures of Harry James and, even more, the Sauter-Finegan orchestra of the 1950s. It has qualities to please all types of listener: subtleties for the classical music aficionado, tender lyricism for those who love a good tune, and infectious rhythm for everybody.
After the intermission, Preu emerged from the wings wearing a referee’s striped shirt to conduct “Inguesu” by Enrico Chapela (2003). Preu was illustrating the program of Chapela’s piece: the minute-by-minute course of a soccer match in which the Mexican team defeated Brazil for the FIFA Confederation Cup in 1999.
Augmented by props and supertitles, and again featuring the orchestra’s effortless virtuosity and inexhaustible stamina, the piece provided an engaging diversion before the evening’s best-known and most substantial segment, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” (1961).
Little need be said about this much-loved music, though some superlative solo contributions from the orchestra must be noted, especially the haunting poignancy of Bruce Bodden’s flute, the bittersweet duetting of Nick Carper’s viola and John Marshall’s cello, and especially the aching lyricism of Jennifer Brummett’s horn in the melody of “Somewhere.”
Impressive, too, was Preu’s achievement in conveying Bernstein’s work not as a random assemblage of favorite moments from a Broadway show, but as an organic work of art, worthy of comparison with the fountain from which all the works on this program, and much music of the last century, flowed: Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring).