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Symphony shines light on Russia

Travis Rivers Correspondent

The Spokane Symphony delivered a spectacular sonic gift package Saturday from Mother Russia to the large audience in the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox. Conductor Eckart Preu and the orchestra players along with piano soloist Valentina Lisitsa sometimes used raw power but mostly an impressive array of orchestral and pianistic color in one of the orchestra’s most impressive performances.

Preu pointed out that this program featured works by three generations of interconnected Russian composers: The older generation was represented by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s popular Symphony No. 4; the next generation by a set of Variations by Tchaikovsky’s colleague, the talented, but short-lived Anton Arensky; and the latest generation by Arensky student Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, always an audience favorite.

Preu opened the concert with Arensky’s Seven Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky for string orchestra. Arensky’s scheme was ingenious, three variations with the theme of a little song by Tchaikovsky heard intact but with different surrounding accompaniment. Then the tune was broken up into fragments in the fourth and fifth variations, only to return whole played by the cellos in the sixth. In the final variation, Arensky quotes Tchaikovsky played backwards, yet sounding perfectly normal. The richness of the playing matched the composer’s clever level of invention.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which followed, deserves the title “war horse” because it is so often ridden into battle by piano virtuosos wanting to show off fast fingers and muscular power in the concerto’s oh-so-familiar tunes and its pianistic glitter.

How refreshing it was to hear Valentina Lisitsa, a young Ukrainian-born pianist, seem so much in tune with Rachmaninoff’s real strengths. She had power and formidable technical command. But her power was that of intensity, not banging. And her stunning technical command was not the “listen-to-me” brand of aggressive assertion but a technique that enabled her to respond to the music’s subtlety as well as its brilliance.

What impressed me most was the freshness Lisitsa brought to Rachmaninoff’s interplay with the solo players in the orchestra and her willingness to be an accompanist in figuration that other pianists often use to call attention to themselves.

Lisitsa also has a Rachmaninoff-like gift of surprise in small moments such as the ring she allowed to continue after the double-handed trills that climax the second movement cadenza even as she began the low bell-like tones leading to the orchestra’s return. Her playfulness in the finale even extended to the beginning of a fugue theme tossed about with the orchestra. Lisitsa’s playing was a pleasure that was awarded a spontaneous and prolonged standing ovation.

Of course, there was an encore. Something of a world speed record might have been set Saturday by Lisitsa’s performance of Chopin’s Etude, Op. 10, No. 4. I did not time it; there was too little time for that. But it was over in a flash and flourish. The audience rose and applauded wildly (again).

Preu concluded the evening with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 – another time-tested warhorse. Even its neurotically self-critical composer was pleased with this symphony. Preu and the symphony musicians unleashed the smashing power of its finale but also brought the melancholy sadness to the second movement and floated the dream-waltz character of the first movement with its dips and glides in the woodwinds.

The orchestra’s romp through the plucked-string entirety of the Scherzo with its circus band intrusion by the brass furnished more fun than anyone has a right to expect at something as dignified as a symphony concert. After that, the crash and jolt that began the finale was a rough slap in the ear whose sting never quite let up until the final chord

It might be noted that the choice of Rachmainoff’s Second Concerto seemed natural for this weekend’s concerts. The audience entering and leaving The Fox on Saturday had a spectacular view of the full moon, wholly appropriate to the second theme of the concerto’s finale which furnished the tune for Frank Sinatra’s 1946 hit recording of “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

Ths concert will be broadcast on KPBX Public Radio FM 91.1 Monday at 7 p.m.
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