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Friday, October 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Symphony Rises To Challenge Of Difficult High School Venue

Travis Rivers Correspondent

Spokane Symphony Orchestra Thursday, Aug. 17, Festival at Sandpoint

The Festival at Sandpoint, for the first time in its 13-year history, was forced Thursday to move one its mainstage concerts from Memorial Field to an indoor location. It took the Spokane Symphony half the concert to warm up its sound to meet the challenge of the revealing acoustics of Sandpoint High School’s Commons Room. But the post-intermission rewards were worth the wait.

Gunther Schuller, the festival’s artistic director, shared the podium Thursday with John LoPiccolo, his assistant at the Schweitzer Institute of Music and conductor of the Idaho Falls Symphony Orchestra. Both produced some winning results with the orchestra.

There were problems in the first half of the concert. The clarity of the Commons Room acoustics acted like a magnifying glass for the ear. That clarity allowed the audience to hear some splendid solos in the Leopold Stokowski’s delicate transcription of Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor, which opened the program, and to savor the care Schuller lavished on details of rhythm and balance in Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.

But that same clarity proved unforgiving of the many lapses of intonation or hesitant entrances. The orchestra, accustomed to the comforting blur of amplified performances at Memorial Field and clearly in need of more rehearsal in the Brahms symphony, sounded tentative, dry and often messy.

After intermission, it sounded like a changed orchestra. For Schuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Of Reminiscences and Reflections” and Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” the string sound acquired greater fullness and warmth and the winds and percussion players seemed more attentive to precise ensemble.

Schuller’s piece, a work of five movements played without pause, proved a fascinating mosaic of 20 or so fragments of music the composer and his wife, Marjorie, enjoyed in nearly 50 years of marriage (she died in 1992). None of the sources were at all obvious. All were mirrored though Schuller’s own complex style and connected in a texture that made full, colorful use of an enormous orchestra with doubled woodwinds, 15 brass, five percussion, harp, piano and strings.

Speaking of orchestral color, LoPiccolo created a sensational effect with the splashy colors of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” There is not much that is subtle about the chatter and chanting of children playing among the pines at the Villa Borghese or Roman legions marching from the mists of time along the tree-lined Appian Way. LoPiccolo elicited “bravos” and a standing ovation with a carefully controlled performance that built to a hair-raising climax.

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