The Spokane Symphony abandoned its usual venues for a one-night stand at The Big Easy on Saturday night. The sign outside this popular downtown nightclub claims the place is a “Concert House.” And for a couple of hours Saturday it became one as the orchestra played the first of this season’s two Symphony on the Edge concerts to a large and very receptive audience.
Musically, though, it was more like a tapas bar with a wide variety of small works that ranged from traditional fare of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch to spicier morsels by Bartok and Shostakovich to the exotic tartness of David Schiff, Christopher Rouse and Michael Daugherty. As tapas in the food world allow a chef to show ingenuity, so the “Dance Mix” program cooked up by conductor Morihiko Nakahara allowed The Big Easy audience the fun of sampling the new and the old.
The mix was stirred by effects more familiar in The Big Easy’s rock concerts: informal dress, Nakahara’s good-humored introductions, lighting effects, projections of the musicians’ images on too-large screens, and, yes, amplification. By rock standards, though, the amplification was very discreet.
I will let symphonic standards pass by without further comment, good as they were. What came as the evening’s happiest surprise was how enthusiastically the audience – newcomers and old hands alike – responded to the edgier modern works. It shows that, handled right and played well, new music is not so fearsome after all.
David Schiff’s “Stomp,” a work inspired by James Brown, allowed all the orchestra’s instruments to explore the percussive side of their personality. But for real percussion, five of the orchestra’s fine percussionists hit, crashed and rubbed more than 40 different instruments in Christopher Rouse’s “Ogoun Badagris,” evoking the most vicious of the voodoo deities. Rouse’s work raised a sweat, and not just on the performers.
Michael Daugherty has a way of dealing with the icons of American popular culture – Elvis, Marilyn, Jackie O and Liberace, to name a few. But his “Flamingo” – as in the plastic yard ornament – turned out to be a very playful take on the similarity of the title and the word “flamenco.” The Spanish rhythms were there, of course, but the kick came as Rick Westrick and Paul Raymond rattled and tapped their way through the dueling tambourine parts of Daugherty’s romp.
Film composers rarely escape from the screen to the concert stage, but Wojciech Kilar (who wrote music for Polanski’s “The Pianist” and Coppola’s “Dracula) showed his off-screen skills in creating tension, relaxing it and rebuilding it using minimalist repetitions with clever changes in sonority. Akira Ifukube (of “Godzilla” fame) exploited a variety of folk dances of northern Japan in his “Ballata Sinfonica,” creating an impressive amount of sound and range of tone colors using comparatively few instruments.
My favorite moment came at the end of the concert as Mexican composer Arturo Marquez described the atmosphere of a pre-Castro Havana nightclub in his “Danzon No. 2.” Nakahara and the symphony musicians captured slithering sensuousness and increasing wildness with an explicitness worthy of one of Graham Greene’s Caribbean novels.
Nakahara and the orchestra responded to a standing ovation with a bright, energetic performance of the “Lone Ranger” segment of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”
Maybe it forecast new musical adventures for symphony neophytes and broadening horizons for symphony veterans.
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