Putting the Spokane Symphony head-to-head with Sir Elton John in competing concerts Friday made the symphony seem a bit like “A Candle in the Wind.”
Unlike Sir Elton over at the Arena, the symphony fell short of a full house at the Fox. Still, the orchestra – led by resident conductor Morihiko Nakahara – delivered a dandy evening of some unusual music.
Friday’s concert was called “Mistaken Identities” and was based on the television series “C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation.” Nakahara opened the evening with Anton von Webern’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Ricercar finale to his “Musical Offering.” Webern took the strands of what really is a six-voice Bach fugue and divided them, sometimes phrase by phrase, or even note by note among the instruments of the orchestra.
“Is the result more Bach, or is it more Webern?” Nakahara asked the audience before conducting the Ricercar.
Webern often is shrugged off as an overly cerebral, mathematically calculating composer of very thorny music. Nakahara showed us a very different Webern.
His love for Bach was expressed in a highly distilled romantic tenderness. Webern’s arrangement is mostly very quiet, allowing the listener to hear the lines of Bach’s fugue like dots in a pointillist painting. Without being able to answer Nakahara’s question, this listener found the arrangement and its performance quite magical.
The identity crisis was heightened in the Sinfonia Concertante for Flute, Oboe, Bassoon, Horn and Orchestra. The program identified the composer as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. We know from letters that Mozart claimed to have written such a piece in 1778 in Paris, but the manuscript, if any, has disappeared. A Sinfonia Concertante for four winds turned up in the library of a Mozart biographer nearly 100 years later. Was it the same work despite its many inconsistencies? Was it even by Mozart since the manuscript had no name on it?
The work was performed in a “reconstruction” by American pianist and Mozart scholar Robert Levin, scrubbing away the work’s more blatant inconsistencies and giving it a Mozart-like polish.
The soloists – flutist Bruce Bodden, oboist Keith Thomas, bassoonist Lynne Feller-Marshall and hornist Jennifer Scriggens-Brummett – made a splendid case for the work technically and musically. The shifting interplay among the solo instruments was, well, just plain fun. Whoever the composer was (probably not Mozart), he or she cut the bassoonist and hornist no slack. They have to play fast passages just as demanding as those for the flute and oboe.
The second half of the concert began with Ottorino Respighi’s first set of Antique Airs and Dances. I wondered as I heard it if listeners who likely know Respighi from his large orchestra warhorses as “The Pines of Rome” or “The Fountains of Rome” could imagine this set of four songs and dances for small orchestra to be by the same composer?
Based on 17th century lute pieces and songs, these four movements are short and elegant, only occasionally turning vigorous and at the very end, a little lusty. There were a few moments of shaky ensemble here and there, but always enjoyable, still.
The final work was one of Joseph Haydn’s strangest symphonies, No. 60, subtitled “Il distratto” (“The Forgetful Fellow”). Haydn originally wrote the music to accompany a play of that name but thought the music too good not to share more widely. He was right.
Like the hero of the play, the music takes strange turns such as growing very quiet, then bursting into an explosion of sound. Other times the mood is somber until the movement’s end, then it forgets itself and turns manic. The short finale is suddenly interrupted, when the violins seemed to have forgotten to tune and stop to tune up.
Nakahara and the orchestra made Haydn’s high spirits bubble. Sir Elton had a capacity audience across the river, but I would suspect, not such a marvelous variety of unfamiliar music.
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