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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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An evening of bold, dramatic music

Travis Rivers Correspondent

The Spokane Symphony’s concert at the Opera House Friday was billed as “The Artist as Hero,” and the event lived up to the name. Music by Mozart, Strauss and Hindemith received a boldly dramatic treatment by the orchestra, conductor Eckart Preu and French horn soloist Eric Ruske.

Preu opened the program with Mozart’s Symphony No. 30, nicknamed the “Prague,” using a smaller orchestra than usual for the Opera House. The reduced forces enabled him to achieve a lighter, clearer sound and risk some daringly brisk tempos. Other than some tentative entries in the brass, the result plunged symphonically into the world of Mozart’s late operas.

Mozart wrote the “Prague” Symphony between two of his greatest operatic masterpieces – “the Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” – and the work, and its performance Friday, reflected many of their beauties. Especially impressive was Preu’s handling of the complex web of overlaid melodies in the two Allegro movements and the dreamy, songlike atmosphere he created in the symphony’s slow movement.

Ruske served up a tasty appetizer with Mozart’s – well, mostly Mozart’s – Horn Concerto in D. Once thought to be Mozart’s first horn concert, it has lately been shown to be his last. What Mozart finished of it, he wrote during the last year of his life. It possesses the same high spirits, and the same tuneful gift of his other three horn concertos, but it lacks a slow movement and its finale was composed by Mozart’s assistant, F.X. Suessmayr (the same guy who finished Mozart’s Requiem). It lasts only about nine minutes.

Ruske’s easy agility and clear, ringing tone made those nine minutes a real delight. He followed the appetizer course with an entree that is one of the most demanding works a French horn player can expect to face, Richard Strauss’ Concerto No. 2. Strauss knew horn playing from the cradle since his father was one of the great horn players of his time. By the time Strauss wrote the Second concerto in 1942, his father had been dead many years and the composer himself was nearing 80.

For horn players, the technical bravura required in the opening Allegro and especially in the finale are staggering challenges. Here Ruske certainly had the right stuff, moving through those showers of notes with the aplomb of a fearless acrobat. For me, though, the wonder of his performance came in the Andante. “Magic” is the only word suggested by the way Ruske’s mellow tone and thoughtful phrasing reeled out an even ribbon of melodic line that conveyed Strauss’ yearning nostalgia for a glorious past – a past that lay years behind him.

After intermission, Preu returned to conduct the “Mathis der Maler” Symphony, a work by one of Strauss’ upstart young rivals, Paul Hindemith. The work is a kind of symphonic summary of his opera about the 16th-century German painter Mathias Gruenewald. Like the painter, Hindemith was an opponent of the regime of his time, the Nazis. Like the painter, Hindemith stuck to his artistic and moral guns and ultimately had to leave Germany.

Hindemith is often characterized as dour and academic. What Preu made clear Friday was that Hindemith was anything but a dull, grey-sounding academic. What emerged was Hindemith’s rhythmic love of the dance, the flashes of his sharp wit, and his brilliant orchestration. Friday’s performance featured splendid solo playing from the woodwinds and glorious bursts of the brass choir whose sound Hindemith used so thrillingly.

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