The Spokane Symphony roared into its 2007-08 season Friday, carried on the rumble of Honegger’s “Pacific 231” – one of the most famous railroad pieces in orchestra literature – and closed the concert with the bells and orchestral din of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Conductor Eckart Preu and the orchestra players gave Friday’s audience a forecast of a brilliant season as the symphony plans a handsome farewell to the INB Performing Arts Center and celebrates its move to the Fox Theater in November.
The soloist for the evening was the French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie who provided a splendid account of both of Ravel’s piano concertos. I challenge anyone to tell with closed eyes which of the concertos requires two hands and which uses only the left hand. Lortie provided an astonishing display of musicianship and virtuosity.
The opening work by Arthur Honegger proved more than just a showy set of sound effects. The audience could almost smell the combination of grease and steam in the energy of Honegger’s locomotive as it rolled slowly into action before speeding down the track then grinding to a screaming halt. How the composer must have loved trains and what could be done with them in orchestral sound.
Lortie is an acknowledged authority in the piano works of Maurice Ravel. But “authorities” sometimes have a way of making performances have an “oh no, here we go again” feeling. Not Lortie. I cannot remember having heard a pianist bring such freshness to works he must have played dozens, if not hundreds, of times.
The keyboard colors he brought to these concertos – whether in the aching wistfulness of the slow movement of the G major Concerto, or the whiplash glissandos of the opening and closing cadenzas of the Concerto for Left Hand Alone. Both concertos are filled with pungent, jazzy syncopated cross accents. Here Lortie was dead-on in his treatment of these rhythmic passages.
The orchestral interplay with Lortie was wonderful to hear. Ravel was especially generous with solo and duet passages for woodwinds, and the Spokane Symphony winds give as generously as they got.
Preu concluded Friday’s performance with one of the great orchestral war horses, Ravel’s magnificent orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The careful detailing of Preu’s performance made this often-heard masterpiece seem as though the ink were scarcely dry.
A helpful and effective touch was the projection of pictures that inspired Mussorgsky.
I was particularly impressed by the contrasting moods of the “Promenade” which begins the work and is heard as the composer goes from picture to picture. Equally impressive were the startling variety of moods that separated the successive pictures: the comic peeping and chirping of “The Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells” and the pomposity and wheedling of the “Two Polish Jews – One Rich, the Other Poor.”
The freshness of Friday’s performance of familiar and unfamiliar works predict a stunning symphony season.
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