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Tuesday, December 18, 2018  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: Accordionist Patricia Bartell sweeps symphony with solo

Two of the brightest planets in Spokane’s musical firmament teamed up this weekend, when accordionist Patricia Bartell joined Eckart Preu and the Spokane Symphony Orchestra on the stage of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. In keeping with Preu’s interest in expanding the repertoire, they collaborated in performing the Concerto for Bandoneon, subtitled “Aconcagua” (1979) by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), who is credited for bringing the tango into the realms of both jazz and concert music.

Bartell’s appearance onstage brought the audience immediately to its feet, and occasioned a burst of whistling and shouting unusual in that auditorium. The Spokane musician is plainly a star, and the reasons are not hard to find. Her mastery of her instrument is absolute, which enables her to use the accordion as a resonator for her soul, able to reach across the gap between her and her listeners to make their thoughts and feelings vibrate in tune with hers.

In a preconcert conversation with Preu, she attempted to explain her ability to make her instrument sing like a human voice as a function of manipulating the bellows and vibrating the keys on her Hohner. You might as well try learning to fly by watching a bird.

In traversing Piazzolla’s demanding solo part, Bartell often closed her eyes to focus on the color and intensity she wanted from each note. Miraculously, the expressions on her face were made immediately audible on the accordion.

Piazzolla’s concerto asks less of the orchestra than of the soloist. Still, the job of synchronizing with the soloist in his tricky, ever-shifting rhythms is far from easy, and the symphony distinguished itself by mirroring Bartell’s kaleidoscopic range of color and mood precisely. Most memorable was the second movement, in which she engaged in intimate dialogue with concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, principal cello John Marshall and harp Earecka Tregenza Moody.

The audience did not want Bartell to leave the stage without an encore, which she graciously supplied with an improvisation so brilliant that one felt that the whole orchestra was still playing.

The other works on the program, Frank Zappa’s “Dupree’s Paradise” (1983) and Charles-Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 (with organ) (1886) required much of the orchestra, and showed them at their best.

In “Dupree’s Paradise,” composed for chamber orchestra, Zappa incorporates diverse musical influences: primitivism, rock, jazz, as well as French and Viennese serialism. The result is often provocative and entertaining, if ill-digested. Zappa liked to consider everything he did to be a work in progress, and so we should approach “Dupree’s Paradise” as such. The sudden shifts from one musical style to another, from one rhythm or tempo to another, present challenges to the performers, especially because each part is so exposed. The almost swaggering professionalism of Larry Jess, trumpet, and Keith Thomas, oboe, was a delight to behold.

A supremely finished display of the orchestra’s, and their leader’s, capabilities comprised the concluding work on the program, the Saint-Saens. No more ingeniously conceived or more brilliantly realized symphony exists in the standard canon than this work, which requires tireless virtuosity from the orchestra and interpretive skills of the highest order from the conductor.

The symphony begins with the merest germ of a melody, whispered in the strings and answered in the winds, which takes shape in a succession of beautiful and stirring themes through four distinct sections. It culminates in a thrilling conclusion, requiring the full resources of the orchestra, augmented by organ with all stops open.

The orchestra performed superbly, no matter the challenge. Dynamics at the opening of the piece were terraced to perfection. The tricky vamp that follows was played by the strings with unfailing accuracy, as were the off-beat contributions by the winds. The Spokane Symphony surmounted each challenge with a nonchalance that would be the envy of some much starrier ensembles. Guiding all of this was Preu, who again demonstrated a remarkable ability to maintain excitement and coherence over extremely long and complex musical spans. In this case, this gift elevated Saint-Saens’ symphony from the status of an enjoyable orchestral warhorse to that of a great work of art.

The evening concluded with an encore, the ever-popular “Ride of the Valkyries,” from Richard Wagner’s opera, “Die Walkure.” We were all sent galloping into next season on the backs of the brilliant brass section of the Spokane Symphony.

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

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