In the inaugural concert of the 2014-15 Spokane Symphony season on Saturday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, music director Eckart Preu wasted no time in demonstrating how he and the orchestra came to win a prestigious award for adventurous programming. Rather than choosing to open with a cheerful overture by Rossini, Preu offered a serious recent work, “Noble Pond,” a 2009 composition by the gifted American composer Chris Rogerson.
In “Noble Pond,” Rogerson crystallizes his emotional response to a news story about the accidental death of a young boy hit by a stray bullet while fishing with his father at a pond near Noble, Oklahoma. Although this did seem an eccentric choice to kick off a musical season, it actually proved ideal. The piece employs a large orchestra and requires great skill and control. It begins with the faintest wash of color and grows steadily, as one instrument after another, led by the passionate playing of principal cello John Marshall, raises its voice to lament the tragic unreliability of life.
At its conclusion, the audience remained silent for a few moments before bursting into enthusiastic applause, a testament to its profound impact. It illustrates the power of new music as well as old to transform and enrich our lives, a theme the orchestra has undertaken for the current season.
The evening took a more cheerful turn with the appearance of the piano team of Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg. An earlier scheduled appearance was canceled after Garburg sustained an injury from a fall. Apparently, no long-term harm was done, as he and Silver (they are husband and wife) were swept up by the audience in a veritable lovefest of enthusiasm and affection. They performed two works, the Concerto No. 2 in C major for Two Keyboards and Strings by J.S. Bach (1730), and Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E major for Two Pianos and Orchestra of 1823.
Some piano duos try to match their tone and phrasing so perfectly that no one can detect which of the pair is playing. Silver and Garburg are not such a duo. While their sensitivity to each other’s playing is supernaturally acute, they are quite different in technique and artistic character. Silver’s tone is intense and sharply focused. In contrast, Garburg’s technique is elegantly poised and relaxed, caressing the keyboard to produce a tone that is warm and velvety. The result is a delightful interplay of color and character, enabling the audience to hear more in the music than would have been possible with a more homogenized performance.
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to a single great work, the Symphony No. 4 in E minor Op. 98 of Johannes Brahms, composed in 1884-85. Even after the illuminating performances of Brahms’ music Preu has given us in the past, one was unprepared for Saturday’s effort.
Brahms was an extremely complex, even enigmatic personality, whose superficial detachment concealed emotions and sensitivities of the most turbulently Romantic kind. As Preu and his orchestra presented it, his final symphony is the most honest and most anguished portrayal we have of the conflicts that roiled the soul of this great artist.
Preu communicated this view of the work by intensifying its contrasts, rather than obscuring them, as is often done. By maintaining unflinchingly steady tempos throughout the work, Preu allowed players in the orchestra to reveal the full pathos in the many solo passages it contains – and by taking special care with matters of balance.
One thinks especially of the passages for horn performed so movingly by principal horn Kyle Wilbert, and of the heartbreaking passage for solo flute in the last movement, in which principal Bruce Bodden altered his normally sensuous tone to sing, like a whippoorwill in a graveyard, of the loss of hope. Chip Phillips, principal clarinet, conveyed the intense nostalgia that always drew Brahms to that instrument, and principal oboe Keith Thomas wove his way elegantly through Brahms’ exhausting solos.
Preu’s refusal to slow his tempo in the symphony’s conclusion presented an enormous challenge to the violins, who had to negotiate difficult bowings at breakneck speed. They proved more than equal to the challenge, and the audience rose as one when the piece concluded, roaring their approval through several curtain calls.