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Sunday, September 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Symphony review: Cellist taps passion in concerto

By Larry Lapidus Correspondent

Ralph Kirshbaum, distinguished cellist and educator, came to Spokane to perform with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra. It was a gift that few in the audience Saturday night, who had slipped and skidded their way over icy roads to the Martin Woldson Theatre at the Fox, will soon forget.

The evening was made more memorable by the surprising role Kirshbaum played as soloist in the beloved cello concerto of Antonin Dvorak.

After delivering a virtuosic performance of Zoltan Kodaly’s delightful “Dances of Galanta,” conductor Eckart Preu launched the opening of the Dvorak concerto. It proceeded beautifully, if a bit deliberately. 

Note values were exactly observed, phrases were uniform and precise. Everything pointed to a performance of Olympian detachment and refinement. Until Kirshbaum spoke up.

The voice that rose from his Montagnana cello was not that of a sophisticated virtuoso, but rather the voice of humanity itself, in all its passion, longing and suffering. His opening flourish confronted the orchestra rather than joining it, and so it continued through the first movement; the orchestra would thunder with massive weight, or cajole with instrumental solos of serene beauty, while the cello spoke of passionate yearning.

Kirshbaum achieved this by varying color and intensity through his mastery of bowing. Familiar passages leapt to life, taking on new meaning and importance. Phrases were never distorted, but neither were they played metronomically.

Through accent and inflection, Kirshbaum spoke with individuality of the longing for love and for a distant homeland that animates the concerto.

As the piece developed through its second and third movements, Kirshbaum’s passion and impetuosity seemed to spread through the orchestra. Dvorak’s orchestration highlights the woodwinds, and the playing of Chip Phillips (clarinet), Bruce Bodden (flute) and Keith Thomas (oboe) spoke with growing poignancy.

In Dvorak’s final movement, a folk-inspired rondo, the orchestra burned with the same fire as the soloist, alternately celebrating life and longing for the joys it withholds.

The First Symphony of Brahms followed, and if there was any fear of an anticlimax after the emotional high of the Dvorak, it was swept away by the power of Preu’s conception and the magnificent playing of the orchestra.

The differences were dramatic between this interpretation and the one the symphony presented only three years ago. While that performance was open and airy, this one was passionately emotional.

The very sound of the orchestra was transformed.

The violins, in particular, played with much greater intensity and richness of tone, reflecting the growth in power, suppleness and confidence in that section over the past several years.

Preu maintains this symphony is Brahms’ expression of his love for Clara Schumann, whose idealizing presence is represented by the haunting horn call in the last movement.

Here one must single out not only the fine playing of Jennifer Scriggins Brummett, principal horn, but the entire horn section, which displayed power and beauty of tone.

Whether Preu’s romantic scenario accounts for the searing intensity of the performance we cannot know. The shouts of “Bravo” and thundering applause, however, proved its success.

This concert will be rebroadcast at 7 p.m. today on KPBX, 91.1 FM.

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