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Symphony review: Devotee of ‘French School’ lights up cello masterpiece

Audiences at this weekend’s concerts by the Spokane Symphony were treated to the first Spokane appearance by a rising star in the firmament of solo cellists, Maja Bogdanovic.

She cast a refreshing new light on an established masterpiece when she joined the orchestra at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox in a performance of the Concerto in E minor for Cello Op. 85 (1919) by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

Born in Serbia, Bogdanovic was drawn to study the cello early and developed a liking for the playing of the so-called “French School,” leading her to move to Paris, first to study and then to establish residence. Exponents of the French School use less pressure on the string and less pronounced vibrato, producing a pure, focused tone, and work within a somewhat narrower emotional spectrum than players from other traditions.

After a disastrous premiere, Elgar’s concerto was accepted into the the standard repertoire but did not achieve the popularity enjoyed by the cello concertos of Dvorak, Schumann and others until 1965, when it was recorded by the late and much-lamented English cellist Jacqueline du Pre. Du Pre set an interpretive standard for the piece by emphasizing its tragic and emotionally harrowing elements, expressive of Elgar’s sorrow and disillusionment at the cultural devastation of World War I.

Not surprisingly, Bogdanovic viewed the Elgar concerto differently. While not ignoring the work’s elegiac element, she insisted on seeing beyond it. Her tempos were brisk and even, which kept her from being bogged down in the tragic implications of every phrase.

The piece includes many recollections by Elgar of happier times, and Bogdanovic conveyed them charmingly. Her technical command of the instrument allowed her to satisfy the virtuoso demands without making heavy weather of them, producing an interpretation that squared with the contemporary assessment of the work by the great English critic and musicologist Ernest Newman: “The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple … but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity.”

In his role as collaborator, music director Eckart Preu matched his soloist’s approach to perfection, directing his orchestra to produce a sound that was silvery and translucent; more a rueful sigh than the heaving sob that has become the norm in this piece. The audience called Preu and Bogdanovic back for bows and secured as an encore from the soloist Pablo Casal’s “Song of the Birds,” accompanied sensitively by the cello section of the orchestra.

We also heard the first performance in Spokane of “Water of Life” (2012-13) by Karen Tenaka, who attended and described the orchestra’s performance of her work as “perfect.”

“Water of Life” employs some elements of European harmony, such as consonant chords and melodies, but eschews other elements, such as a regular beat and a tonal center. The result is a piece that achieves psychological and philosophical goals plainly in the Zen Buddhist tradition: a timeless but intense awareness of the power and beauty of life, and a willingness to surrender the demands of the ego in order to become a part of that beauty. This is a tall order for a 10-minute piece of music, but “Water of Life” fills it.

The program concluded with a performance of “Symphonie Fantastique” (1830) of Hector Berlioz (1803-69), last performed by Preu and the orchestra in 2011. To his earlier emphasis on the horizontal interpretive arch of the symphony, Preu this time added a greatly deepened vertical sensitivity and awareness of the immense emotional energy buried in the details of Berlioz’ orchestration.

Details in this familiar work which lay hidden, such as the cornet line in the Second Movement, so gloriously rendered by Eric Moe, were brought into the light. The first and second violin sections, lead by Mateuz Wolski and Amanda Howard-Phillips, now exhibit a degree of virtuosity and refinement just not available five years ago.

The bass section, under the leadership of Patrick McNally, has emerged to provide a reliable harmonic foundation and a source of beauty and expression. The brass section, called on by Berlioz to close the work, nearly took the carefully restored paint off the walls of the theater, so thrilling was the sound.

Above it all stands Eckart Preu, whose musicianship we are privileged to see develop, as it were, before our eyes and ears.

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

This article has been updated to reflect the correct instrument and player of the solo in the Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique.”


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