For a few seconds, the only sound one could hear in the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox was of two flutes, gently retracing an upward-moving figure. The sound was clearly audible from every point in the hall, allowing everyone in the audience to appreciate all the colors it contained. Soon, the flutes were joined by clarinets, answering with a matching, downward-moving figure. Together, they created a musical motif plainly evocative of running water.
Thus, the inaugural concert of the 2018-2019 season of the Spokane Symphony, its 73rd, began with Bedrich Smetana’s beloved tone-poem, “The Moldau” of 1874. It was an ideal opener, as it reintroduced to the audience the gifted principal players of the orchestra in a way that highlighted the magnificent hall that they call home. As they entered one by one, we were able to welcome after their summer hiatus the colorful winds, the nimble trumpets, the creamy horns and the expressive strings. Smetana’s orchestration is wonderfully transparent, even in the thickest passages, and music director and conductor Eckart Preu kept all the voices so perfectly balanced that every nuance was audible. In this work, Smetana traces the course of the Moldau from its beginnings to its final state as Bohemia’s mightiest river. As one followed it Friday night, through meadow and township, past rural gatherings and conflicts, one noted the remarkable steadiness of Preu’s tempo. At every point where one sensed either a temptation or an opportunity to quicken the pace, the conductor steadily maintained a beat that might be described as comfortable, rather than lively.
In the other Bohemian work he chose for the first concert of his final season as music director, the Symphony No. 7 in D minor of Antonin Dvorak (1885), adopted the same approach, which came as quite a surprise. Preu and the orchestra gave a performance of this same work in 2012 that remains in the memory of those who heard it as one of great dramatic intensity, characterized by powerful emotions as mirrored in sharp contrasts in tempo and dynamics. Friday’s performance was entirely different: tempos were steady, contrasts were minimized and right angles smoothed into curves. It was a beautiful performance, in which Dvorak’s melodic and instrumental inspirations sparkled like jewels on velvet, but the darker elements of tragedy and loss, which are fundamental to this work, perhaps the composer’s greatest, were scarcely noticeable.
This change in interpretive character is in contrast not only with Preu’s earlier performance of this piece, but also with the interpretive profile he has established over the 14 years he has led the Spokane Symphony, especially with respect to symphonies of the Romantic era. Beginning with a performance of the Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony, No. 8 in B minor, in his first season with the orchestra, Preu created a gallery of performances, including the First and Fourth Symphonies of Brahms, the last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky and the Fifth of Sibelius, notable for their fearless portrayal of tragedy. In some cases, such a view required a sharp break with interpretive tradition, while, in this instance at least, Preu appeared to embrace it. It will be very interesting to see in the four concerts remaining to Preu this season whether this is proves to be an anomaly or a profound shift in the conductor’s art.
It was certainly very apparent in the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (1805), which closed the first half of the program, and which featured the evening’s most astonishing element in Centralia-born piano soloist Charlie Albright. The piece opens with a very long orchestral introduction. Rather than emphasizing its fierce, dramatic aspects, Preu chose to interpret the music as brooding and lyrical, in the process producing an orchestral sound that was very much of the 19th century, rather than the 18th, in which the work was composed.
With his very first notes, we were alerted to the fact that the soloist was determined to take a different view. His playing was eager, alert, even aggressive. At times, he appeared to strain against the rather stately tempo set by the conductor. In contrast to the well-upholstered, rather Brucknerian tone of the orchestra, Albright’s tone was crystalline and his voicing wonderfully clear, an effect he was able to maintain with the aid of a technique that appears to have no limits.
Beethoven’s writing for the left hand, for example, is often rendered as an indistinct rumbling of indeterminate pitch and rhythm. Albright used his left hand to mine the score for examples of Beethoven’s wit and imagination that were at once entirely novel and yet entirely right.
The give-and-take between orchestra and soloist, which is entirely appropriate to Beethoven’s conception of concerto form, continued through the first movement, until the cadenza. Instead of performing the cadenza which Beethoven left to aid performers who lacked his skill as an improviser, Albright proved that he, in fact, has that skill, and needs no help from anyone.
He held the audience in amazed disbelief for more than five minutes, while he explored the rhythmic and melodic content of Beethoven’s score and wove what he found into a musical fabric that was delightful, illuminating and pianistically staggering. After that, the contest was over. The orchestral contribution gradually grew lighter and more nimble, until in the final movement it equaled the soloist in vigor and impetuosity.
In response to the audience’s (and the orchestra’s) clamorous response, Albright returned to the stage to treat us all to an encore that was entirely appropriate to Beethoven, who loved to tweak the nose of propriety, by playing his own virtuoso transcription/fantasy on Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.” It surely burned its way into the memory of all who heard it.
This article has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Charlie Albright’s last name.