The Spokane Symphony knocked the chill off a bleak Sunday with an outstanding performance at The Met. The orchestra’s players sounded at the top of their form under associate conductor Morihiko Nakahara in a program that provided brilliance and variety. And they provided a warm homecoming for viola soloist Lois Landsverk.
The concert opened with a surprise. In place of “Threnody for Toki,” a contemporary Japanese work listed first on the program, Nakahara began, without announcing the change, with Mozart’s overture to “The Impresario.”
Lesser known than Mozart’s overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” this overture has the same level of agitated excitement. Sunday’s sunny performance made an ideally bright opening.
Landsverk grew up in Spokane and has established a formidable career as an orchestral player, chamber musician, soloist and teacher in Germany. She showed why she is in steady demand there with her warm-toned and incisive performance of Carl Stamitz’s Viola Concerto in D major. Landsverk captured the courtly elegance of the opening movement and the lyricism of second. The finale proved a special treat with its innocent beginning darkening to a minor key and exploding with acrobatic passages at the end.
Stamitz was among the first, maybe even the very first, to write an effective concerto for the viola. The mellow quality of the viola doesn’t have the showy brilliance of the violin or the assertiveness of the cello. But Stamitz, a violist himself, knew how to exploit the viola’s character, and so does Landsverk. Never once did she yield to the temptation to play so loud that her tone turned gravelly. She didn’t have to, since Nakahara maintained an excellent balance of orchestra and soloist.
After intermission, Nakahara returned to “Threnody for Toki,” the work of his countryman Takashi Yoshimatsu, originally scheduled to open the concert, with Landsverk joining the orchestra. The “Threnody” is a deeply felt lament for the Japanese crested ibis, a magnificent bird now on the edge of extinction.
Using only strings and piano, Yoshimatsu evokes the quiet cries of the bird against a soft luminous haze of sustained sounds, broken by the flutter of birds’ wings. The improvisatory piano part, sensitively played by Linda Siverts, sounds first tender and dreamy but becomes angrier and anguished before the return to the quiet of the opening. This is a beautifully unusual work, well worth hearing and rehearing.
Nakahara ended Sunday’s concert with a work that has been often re-heard, Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. The orchestra’s response to Nakahara’s ebullience and refinement in Mendelssohn – the necessary requirements for success with this elusive composer – was a joy to hear.
What will stay in my mind for a long time is the conspicuous pleasure taken by the pairs of woodwind players – flutes, oboes, clarinets, even bassoons – in the fast paced exchanges in the final salterello. One writer calls the melody that sprints from player to player an “eel-like” combination of speed and grace. The Mendelssohn finale alone would have made the slippery trip to The Met worthwhile Sunday afternoon. But there was lots more to enjoy as well.
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