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Tuesday, February 18, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Pianist Gallantly Faces Challenges Of Rachmaninoff

By Travis Rivers Correspondent

Spokane Symphony Orchestra Friday, Oct. 27, at the Opera House

For the classical music listener, nothing quite matches the thrill of a masterful performer revealing the beauties of an enormously challenging work. Nelson Freire, a pianist known to me previously only through recordings and reputation, proved a great master of the instrument Friday in Rachmaninoff’s fearsomely difficult Third Piano Concerto.

Every page of this concerto contains some new technical hurdle - flashing scales and arpeggios, cascades of powerful chords, and rapid-fire repeated notes. Freire surmounted these difficulties with apparent ease, never letting technical showiness obscure the concerto’s lyric beauties or its little flashes of humor.

Freire and conductor Fabio Mechetti did not observe any of the standard cuts in the concerto made by many pianists, including the composer himself. This work can seem tediously long in less-sensitive hands. But Freire and Mechetti brought a sense of inevitability to Rachmaninoff’s seemingly random structure. Mechetti’s keen orchestral accompaniment provided its own rewards, such as the first movement’s melodic interchange among flutist Bruce Bodden, oboist Keith Thomas and clarinettist Virginia Jones and the sonorous brass in the finale.

Friday’s audience had the good fortune to hear Freire playing on an instrument whose noble tone, clarity and - most important, perhaps, given the cavernous size of the Opera House - power. Like Freire himself, the symphony’s new Steinway concert grand was making its Spokane debut Friday. And, also like Freire, this instrument is one that will be a treat to hear again and again.

Freire showed the new piano’s gentler side when responded to the audience’s spontaneous standing ovation with an encore. He gave a beautifully controlled performance of the haunting “Melody from Gluck’s ‘Orphee’ ” transcribed by Giovanni Sgambati - a piece that was a favorite encore of Rachmaninoff, by the way.

After the fearsome turbulence of the Rachmaninoff concerto, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 came like a breath of fresh air. There are moments in this symphony that are wild and even startlingly theatrical. Dvorak claimed while composing this work he wanted to write a symphony that “would shake the world.” Mechetti’s conducting allowed that world-shaking quality to come through without sacrificing sunny mood and festive dancing so deeply ingrained in Dvorak’s style.

I have no idea whether it was deliberate or not, but Mechetti’s interpretation reminded me how pervasive the influence of Wagner was in Dvorak’s work. I must have counted at least eight or 10 references to Wagner’s Prelude to “Tristan” in this symphony. What a treat to rediscover an element you had nearly forgotten in a familiar masterpiece - just another of the joys of Friday’s concert.

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