May 12, 2014 in City

Spokane Symphony’s season closers exhausting, inspiring

Larry Lapidus Correspondent
 
Suggested recordings

Larry Lapidus’ essential recordings:

• Sergei Prokofiev, Cantata, “Alexander Nevsky Op. 78.” Anna Reynolds/Philharmonia Orchestra/Ambrosian Chorus, conducted by Riccardo Muti.  Warner/EMI

• Modest Mussorgsky (arr. Maurice Ravel), “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. DG

Eckart Preu, music director of the Spokane Symphony, often has said his chief goal is to provide his audience with an intense emotional experience, not merely to entertain them.

He clearly planned to do just that in the final concerts of the season last weekend at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox by programming two intensely moving Russian masterpieces: Sergei Prokofiev’s cantata “Alexander Nevsky” (1938), and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (c. 1874), as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1922.

Both works are linked to visual media. Pictures, originally composed as a suite of piano pieces, was inspired by an exhibition of paintings and sketches by the composer’s friend Viktor Gartmann, whose death at 39 Mussorgsky mourned deeply. The work remained little-known until it was made accessible to concert audiences in Ravel’s brilliant orchestral version.

Prokofiev, himself a master of the modern orchestra, composed the music for Alexander Nevsky in collaboration with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein on a piece of cinematic propaganda describing a victory by a ragtag group of Russians over an invasion of German crusaders in 1242.

Prokofiev creates a mood of fearful anticipation at the opening of “Alexander Nevsky” with a shrill, keening figure high in the register of the clarinet, accompanied by the basses and cellos very low in theirs. Mournful wisps of melody from the oboe drift in from offstage, but the anxiety created by the orchestra is only resolved with the entry of the chorus, representing the spirit of the Russian people. That crucial role was taken by the Spokane Symphony Chorale, as prepared by its director, Julian Gomez-Giraldo.

The Chorale not only sang in clear and richly inflected Russian, but convincingly assumed the characteristic tone color of a Russian chorus, exhibiting a ringing, heroic quality in the tenors and sopranos, while a warm, solid foundation was laid down by the baritones and altos.

When, at the conclusion of the work, Prokofiev sets a hymn in praise of Nevsky for the chorus and full orchestra, the chorale responded with thrilling force, culminating in a triumphant chord that seemed to go on forever, rising in volume and intensity to a point that seemed barely possible. As the composer intended, the audience was left exhausted but inspired.

A moment of quieter but no less intense emotion was created by the splendid young contralto Meredith Arwady, in the sixth movement of the piece, “The Field of the Dead,” a mournful and haunting aria in praise of those who die in battle. Arwady is not only gifted with an exceptionally beautiful instrument but has equipped herself with the ironclad technique needed to make it serve the needs of her art. We were indeed fortunate to encounter such an artist before she is claimed by the great opera houses and concert halls of the world.

In accepting a commission to orchestrate “Pictures” from the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, Ravel’s challenge was to bring to life the treasure of character and color he found locked inside Mussorgsky’s piano score. With his exquisite sensibility, Ravel could see not one but many colors hiding in a single phrase, and would vitalize them by constantly varying the instruments giving voice to that phrase. The first time a melody appears, it may be given to the tuba and strings; the next time, to the bassoon and English horn. The result is an impression of inexhaustible variety.

There is not an instrument in Ravel’s huge orchestra that is not called on to exhibit the highest degree of virtuosity. Special mention must go to principal trumpet Larry Jess’ hectoring contribution to “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” the sixth piece in the suite, and Greg Yasinitsky’s plaintive saxophone (yes, saxophone!) solo in the second piece, “The Old Castle.”

Preu’s choice of the Mussorgsky/Ravel masterpiece was a celebration of the brilliant ensemble he has helped create. It capped a wonderfully successful 2013-14 season and left the audience eager for the season to come.

It also was appropriate that the Symphony Association chose to precede the concert with an award to Sherry Knott, whose tireless work and dedication to the arts in Spokane can never be repaid. Without the support of her and her husband, Frank, the musicians we call the Spokane Symphony might instead be scattered across the face of the globe, and the corner of Sprague and Monroe, on which the splendid Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox now stands, might well be used for parking cars.

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

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