An event took place this weekend at the Fox that will live long in the memories of everyone there, although a plain description suggests nothing out of the ordinary: As part of the third Classics concert this season by the Spokane Symphony, pianist Conrad Tao performed the Second Piano Concerto of Charles Camille Saint-Saëns.
So, what’s the big deal? People who are acquainted with the classical piano repertoire know the Saint-Saëns G minor Concerto (1868) as an entertaining showpiece that once very popular, and now is a relic of a bygone age of touring virtuosos who traveled in their own rail cars and carried on shipboard affairs with operatic divas. It is a piece comprising swatches of various styles: a bit of Bachian improvisation, a hint of East Indian orientalia, some Provençal folk dancing, stitched together with beguiling orchestration and pianistic filigree.
It didn’t matter. Under the molten heat of the 23-year-old Tao’s genius, what seems in some hands to be little more than empty note-spinning was transformed into gold. No matter how rapid the passagework or how routine the phrase, Tao’s attentive mind found nuggets of passion, humor and beauty. The experience of hearing him play was one of astonishment.
Of his technique we need say little. It is perfect. Whatever can be done at the piano, he can do, whether it requires speed, delicacy, color or power, and always with an impeccable sense of style..
Having neglected to breathe for the 30 minutes of the performance, the audience leapt to their feet to convey their thanks to the soloist, who rewarded them with an interpretation of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in A major K. 208, in which sunshine glinted in every trill and each modulation opened onto new vistas of beauty.
Throughout the Saint-Saëns concerto, the Spokane Symphony played superbly, but was eclipsed by the soloist. The remainder of the program allowed them to shine on their own, which they did with great brilliance. The exceptional power and flexibility which the orchestra showed in its last concerts under Morihiko Nakahara were undiminished, and were enhanced by the special gifts of music director and principal conductor, Eckart Preu.
Preu selected three late-Romantic tone poems, one justly celebrated, the other two perhaps unjustly neglected. The celebrated selection is by Richard Strauss: his “Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche Op. 28” (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”) of 1895. This delightful work has become a staple in the repertoire of every orchestra capable of meeting its demands, and often figures as a showpiece in the programs orchestras bring on tour. On the evidence of Saturday’s performance, the Spokane Symphony is not only capable of negotiating the extravagant demands, most famously of the horns, but of doing so without once ruffling its velvety tone. The 15-note motif started by the violins to begin the piece told us what to expect: not only unanimity of attack and perfection of phrasing, but a keen sense of style that points to the impudent smile and sense of fun that courses through the piece and characterizes the audacious figure of Till himself.
Preu chose to pair this much-beloved work with another by Strauss: “Macbeth Op. 23” of six years earlier. As the conductor made plain in his remarks to the audience, “Macbeth” shows Strauss still to be in the formative phase of his development, not yet having achieved the formal and melodic mastery we find in “Till.” Even so, Strauss is eager to display his command of the orchestra, which appears in the subtle interchange between clarinet Chip Phillips and oboe Keith Thomas, both of whom went on to played important roles in “Till Eulenspiegel,” and in the inexhaustible energy of the trumpet section. The beauty and power of their playing was greatly enhanced by the gorgeous tone of the Shagerl rotary valve trumpets recently donated by the Johnson-Fix Foundation.
Whatever structural defects one might find in “Macbeth,” or in the tone poem which opened the evening, “The Accursed Huntsman (1883)” by César Franck (1822-90), the propulsive energy and sense of destination which Preu imparted to these performances brought them vividly before us, with all the color and narrative clarity for which their composers could have hoped.