Conductor Eckart Preu said last week that he was aiming for a flashy opening night concert. Friday’s performance with the Spokane Symphony provided plenty of flash, but with lots of warmth along with the glitter to a nearly sold-out house.
The program of waltz-based orchestral showpieces by Strauss and Ravel and a virtuoso piano concerto by Rachmaninoff placed heavy demands on the orchestra’s musicians for their first concert of the season. But the players, Preu and piano soloist Jean-Philippe Collard set a very high standard for the rest of the season.
Preu began by announcing that this was the orchestra’s 60th season, and in honor of the occasion, he produced a tiny music box that played “Happy Birthday.” As though that were not enough happiness for the occasion, he conducted Stravinsky’s amusingly warped arrangement of “Happy Birthday,” as well.
The official program began with the Suite from Richard Strauss’s heavily waltz-laden opera “Der Rosenkavalier.” Preu led a very old-fashioned sounding performance of the suite – old-fashioned in a way that suited the piece perfectly: The waltzes had the characteristic Viennese lilt familiar to anyone who has ever listened to a New Year’s Day Concerto of the Vienna Philharmonic. The string players gave just a dollop of sweetness to their tone, by subtly gliding from one melodic note to another, rather than jumping. And Preu’s tempos had a flexibility that made the instrumental dialogues seem to flow naturally rather than in a metronomic rigidity.
The result evoked turn-of-the- century Vienna, just as Strauss would have wanted – a bittersweet nostalgia that evaded sugary sentiment.
Preu then turned his waltz view from Vienna to Paris, and from the nostalgia of Strauss to the decidedly harsher view of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse.” Here Preu let the waltzes become steadily edgier, as though the dancers were frantically nearing a kind of hysterical doom. In both works there were many brilliant details of orchestration, and in both the orchestral solos were impressive. The soloists in the woodwind section shone with special brilliance in the clouds of ornamental filigree that increasingly surrounded the waltz melodies.
Following intermission, the waltzing world disappeared, replaced by the concerto that has gained nearly legendary status as an “impossible” piece in the movie “Shine,” Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The evening’s soloist was Jean-Philippe Collard, whose approach to this supposedly impossible finger-breaker was as matter-of-fact as eating breakfast. No flailing arms, no foot stomping, no rhetorical bombast – just magnificent piano playing. Rachmaninoff himself is said to have played the piano in the same unassuming way.
Collard’s tonal range went from the quiet simplicity of the concerto’s opening to the brassy boldness of the brilliant first-movement cadenza and the thunder of the last bars of the finale. The orchestra part was expertly handled, and the orchestral detail Preu brought out served as a reminder that Rachmaninoff was as fine a conductor and composer of orchestral works as he was a pianist.
The Spokane Symphony gave its large audience an opening night to remember, and the audience gave the musicians – orchestra players, conductor and soloist – a well-deserved and prolonged standing ovation. It augurs well for a fine 60th season.
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