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Monday, September 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Symphony review: A brilliant encore to gentle beauty

By Travis Rivers Correspondent

Encores often are like candy thrown from a parade float: fun to catch but neither nourishing nor memorable. Violinist Augustin Hadelich provided a brilliant and memorable exception to that statement in the encore he played at Saturday’s Spokane Symphony concert at The Fox.

Hadelich had just finished playing Prince Charming to the Cinderella of violin concertos, Antonín Dvorák’s Concerto in A minor, which ended the official part of the program. The violinist’s tonal beauty and unerring musicality allowed him to be the ideal escort to this concerto’s gentle beauty.

Dvorak did not compose an imposing symphonic concerto like his friend Brahms, nor a glittering showpiece like Tchaikovsky. Instead, Dvorak’s concerto sings and dances to an orchestral accompaniment that seldom has much to say on its own.

Conductor Eckart Preu, Hadelich and the Spokane Symphony’s players delivered the concerto in all its graceful beauty. 

Responding to an instantaneous and vociferous ovation, Hadelich played Paganini’s notoriously difficult Caprice No. 24. The caprice lasts less than five minutes, but its 11 variations on a simple tune cover an encyclopedic range of violinistic challenges for the fingers and the bow. I have never before heard this little work performed with such easy technical assurance and such musical sensitivity. 

Hadelich’s encore led me to think of earlier works on the program in the light of Paganini’s short work. Brahms’ mighty Third Symphony showed how a composer very different from Paganini could extract the most emotional juice from tiny musical seeds over a much longer time span. And it showed how Brahms – who some thought to be a stuffy traditionalist – knew how to throw some surprising musical curveballs. 

Preu and the orchestra released those surprises with great intensity. The lulling introduction to the finale suddenly exploded with energy, and the third movement, where one expects a light-hearted scherzo, Brahms gave us a melancholy romanza.

In this symphony, and elsewhere in the concert, principal horn Jennifer Brummett played beautifully. So, too, did her colleagues in the woodwind and brass sections.

I was surprised that some in the audience insisted on applauding after every movement. Some works invite, or even demand, applause after individual movements because of a brilliant end. Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 is not one of them.

Preu opened Saturday’s program with György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto), a work of four short movements much like one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with its interplay of orchestral soloists. But the music grows directly out of the folk music of Romania and Hungary and the urban Gypsies of their cities.

Particularly affecting was the Romanian lullaby in the concerto’s first movement, played by clarinetist Chip Phillips to the gentle rocking of the strings. In a deft atmospheric touch, Ligeti recalled a camping trip to the Carpathian Mountains in the third movement with the sound of the alphorn imitated by Brummett and echoed offstage by Roger Logan along with the sounds of mountain breezes and the rumble of distant thunder.

For those who cringe at the thought of contemporary music, Preu and the orchestra provided an accessible entree with a work that also had real substance.

Preu had opened the second half of the concert with the 13-year-old Mozart’s Overture to his opera “Lucio Silla.” The opera has been charitably forgotten, but the overture sparkled as only Mozart’s music can.

This concert will be broadcast on KPBX Public Radio FM 91.1 this evening at 7 p.m.

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