March 17, 2014 in City

Spokane Symphony Orchestra concert a technical marvel

Larry Lapidus Correspondent
 
Suggested recordings

Like what you heard at this weekend’s Spokane Symphony performance, or want to hear what you missed? Music critic Larry Lapidus has compiled a list of essential recordings:

1. John Adams, “Shaker Loops”: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop. (Naxos)

2. Sergei Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 2 in E minor: Jascha Heifetz and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Munch. (RCA/Sony)

3. W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major K. 543 (in an approach similar to Nakahara’s): The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell. (Columbia/Sony)

It seems that two classical music buffs cannot converse for two minutes without using the word “technique.” Saturday’s concert of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox illustrated the nature and importance of technique.

At its most basic level, “technique” refers to the degree of control a musical performer, conductor or composer exerts over his or her medium of expression.

In his “Shaker Loops” (1983), American John Adams demonstrates a mastery of compositional technique that has allowed him to become one of the world’s leading composers of concert music and opera. Rather than employing traditional melodies or themes, Adams employs small “cells” of pitch and rhythm that are repeated and slowly subjected to slight changes. The danger of such a method, of course, is monotony, and some pieces written with this method fall into this trap. In “Shaker Loops,” however, Adams achieves both beauty and emotional force by dividing a string orchestra into as many as eight independent segments, and assigning different cells and patterns to each.

This complex approach to composition demands great technique of its performers, to which the orchestra and its resident conductor, Morihiko Nakahara, proved more than equal. All the string groups played with precision, focus and, where called for, beauty of tone, as in the duet passage in the third section for two cellos, which aspires to melody, feelingly performed by principal John Marshall and Sean Lamont.

From the opening measures, it was plain that this precision, clarity and variety flowed from the conductor, who displayed unsurpassable technical assurance. Nakahara modestly confessed to some anxiety about conducting the Adams piece, but all we could see was mastery. With a nod of his head, he would cue the violas while signaling the violins with his left hand to play more softly, at the same time glancing at the basses to prepare for their entry, all while maintaining the pulse and intensity of the rhythm through movements of his body. This sounds awkward and silly. In fact, it was beautiful to behold.

When violinist Sayaka Shoji walked onstage to perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (1935), she carried a magnificent Stradivarius, the “Recamier” of 1729. Within moments of her raising it to her shoulder and beginning the sad, somber solo melody that opens the piece, it was clear that she was worthy of the instrument. By the conclusion of the piece, the audience was asking whether the instrument was worthy of her.

All superlatives fail in describing an artist of Shoji’s caliber. “Perfect” is inadequate. All challenges of technique having long since been mastered, she is free to share with an audience the fruits of her extraordinary aural imagination and interpretive insight. One could only wonder at her ability, after negotiating the fiendish difficulties of the Prokofiev, to vault over the pitfalls of her encore, Max Reger’s Prelude in G minor for solo violin.

Still, the performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat K. 543 was perhaps the most remarkable of the evening. The ebullience and vitality of this composition are so great that little more than tidiness and accuracy are required for a satisfactory performance. Nakahara, however, perceives the gleam of diamonds beneath Mozart’s flowing surface, and extracts and conveys them to his audience through tireless attention to detail and an insistence that each phrase, measure and note be not merely played but brought to life. The music sang, it danced, it spoke, it actually respired, like the living thing it is.

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

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