The fifth shoe dropped on Saturday night, when Jayce Ogren, the last of five candidates we were to hear for the position of music director of the Spokane Symphony, led the orchestra in its penultimate classics concert of the 2018-19 season.
Even before walking onstage, Ogren had distinguished himself in the customary interview with Verne Wyndham’s “From the Studio” radio program, on which Istvan Vardai, cello soloist in this weekend’s program, also appeared. Those who heard the interview (and if you missed it, it can still be found at spokanepublicradio.org) were treated to a discussion of music as informative, as interesting and as inspiring as one could possibly hope for.
As in his preconcert remarks, Ogren displayed on stage qualities of clarity, focus and seriousness that proved also to be the hallmarks of his musicianship. Seriousness is not to be confused with solemnity, dryness or pomposity, but a commitment to make every moment count, to search for significance and emotional impact in every sentence, or in every musical phrase and bar.
This sort of seriousness characterizes all great works of art, including the three works on the program: Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 2 for Orchestra Op. 17 (1947), Sergei Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante in E minor for Cello and Orchestra Op. 125 (1952) and Maurice Ravel’s orchestral arrangement (1922) of the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) by Modest Mussorgsky.
Like most literary essays, Barber’s Second Essay answers the question, “What can I make of this subject?” Its subject, then, is the mind of the composer and the processes it goes through in exploring the possibilities of the sparse and resolutely unmemorable melodic material announced by the flute at the outset of the piece.
As he guided us through the 10 minutes of Barber’s Essay, Ogren made clear the composer’s immense skill in melodic transformation, his refined command of harmony and his brilliant mastery of orchestral color. What Ogren could not reveal, because the composer failed to provide it, was anything beyond the music itself, anything we could take into ourselves and use to illuminate our understanding of the world outside the concert hall. It left one with feelings of admiration, but not love.
With the appearance of Vardai and the first notes of music by Prokofiev, the picture changed completely.
Prokofiev’s Symphonia Sinfonia Concertante is seldom heard, not because it is vacuous, but because it is so densely packed with creative energy, so unremitting in its demands on the attention of its performers and its audience, that few are willing, or able, to take it on. The solo part has often been declared unplayable, and so it is, except in the case of an artist so prodigiously gifted as Vardai, who delivered the greatest performance in a concerto I have ever witnessed.
His virtuosity at the cello defied belief, and left the audience rubbing its eyes and shaking its heads in wonder. Difficulties were not overcome, they were atomized. He negotiated Prokofiev’s extravagant demands with careless ease, never losing his focus on the emotional and intellectual purpose of the music. As thrilling as his execution was of the work’s many virtuoso passages, it was his rendition of the rapturous lyricism at the heart of the second movement that sticks most stubbornly in the memory, never to be dislodged. Equally memorable were the tenderness and refinement with which Vardai played as an encore the Sarabande from Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D major for solo cello.
Prokofiev termed his work a sinfonia concertante, or “symphony-concerto,” to underline the equality of the orchestra’s role with that of the soloist. In Saturday’s performance, the brilliance and passion of the conductor and the orchestra fully equaled those of the soloist.
Ogren never lost the threads of purpose and destination with which the composer ties together the many diverse sections of the piece, which in lesser hands can seem aimless and scattered. The orchestra’s ability to master such a complex and demanding score after only a few days of rehearsal, and to perform it with such utter confidence and perfection of ensemble is little short of miraculous. It speaks not only to the members’ complete professionalism, but also to the conductor’s skill and effectiveness in preparing them.
These qualities were evident, also, in the performance that filled the second half of the program of Ravel’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, one of the best known and mostly widely loved pieces in the orchestral repertoire.
Rather than relying, however, on the status of the piece as a sure hit, Ogren continued to demand the greatest expressivity and color from its every measure. The result was a fresh and vivid new view of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece; a view in which the work’s essential Russianness was allowed to emerge from beneath the patina of Ravel’s beguiling, but distinctly Gallic orchestration.
Even so, the audience was loud and persistent in its acknowledgment of the many star turns afforded solo members of the orchestra by the arranger. One remembers in particular both the agility and the purity of Larry Jess’ trumpet in “Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” the doleful chant of Skyler Johnson’s euphonium in “Bydlo,” the smoky saxophone of Christopher Parkin in “The Old Castle,” and the protean bassoon, now gruff, now haunting, of principal Lynne Feller-Marshall.
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