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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: Symphony soars, has plenty to Like

Donivan Johnson Special to The Spokesman-Review

Friday evening’s performance by the Spokane Symphony really compelled the listener to, in the words of the orchestra’s marketing campaign, “Say WOW.”

While “Casual Classics” may be the title of the more intimate concert series that opened at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox, there was nothing casual about the profound artistry of the musicians under the direction of Music Director Eckart Preu and Resident Conductor Morihiko Nakahara.

The theme of the program was “Beethoven’s Facebook,” and while waiting for the concert to begin the audience had the opportunity to view Ludwig van Beethoven’s (imaginary) and the Symphony’s (actual) Facebook pages. Some tech-ready observers even posted messages live, including “Go, Go Gadget Symphony.”

As a preview to the music, Preu shared imaginative postings about Beethoven and his “friends.” Given what we know of Beethoven’s temper, social skills and relationships, he probably would have been much better off on InYourFacebook.

Opening with J.S. Bach’s Ouverture to Suite No. 1, the orchestra set the tone for the evening with its precision, exquisite control of dynamics and phrasing, and perfectly balanced ensemble playing. The only exception was that the harpsichord, from which Preu conducted, was overpowered by the low strings and could not be heard.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 38 (“Echo”) was also a textbook example of control and disciplined performance. The horns’ first entrance was a bit cold, but they soon warmed up beautifully to add balance to the ensemble.

Movement II, from which the work derives its nickname, was a sublime experience and the highlight of the first half of the concert. The string section was uncanny in its phrasing of the “echoes.”

Movements III and IV were scored for a virtuoso oboist visiting the Esterhazy estate. Keith Thomas, principal oboe, performed these fantastically difficult passages with masterful technique that made the music soar. His two calls for applause were well-deserved.

Gioachino Rossini once remarked, “Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music.” His Overture to “L’Italiana in Algeri” proved an aural “laundry list” of musical clichés and worn-out ideas. Although the Haydnesque “Surprise” opening was perfectly executed, this overture had the least musical substance of any of the works performed.

This same composer said of Beethoven, “He was a Titan wrestling with the gods.” The Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus” had been programmed for after the intermission, but was changed to end the first half with the rationale of comparing it to the Rossini. This was an excellent move, as the genius of Beethoven’s music greatly overshadowed Rossini.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 concluded this wonderful concert and tied all the previous music together; which, after all, was the point. All the works were youthful in spirit and actuality – composed by men in their 30s or, in Rossini’s case, 21.

The orchestra was poised to make the music soar again and succeeded on every level: the ensemble balance; dynamics (all those abrupt soft and loud moments that drove Beethoven’s contemporaries wild); elegant string phrasing; the woodwind section at all times sounding like a perfect organ stop; the precise timpani accents.

It was a standing ovation for a very deeply moving performance.


Guest reviewer Donivan Johnson, of Metaline Falls, Wash., is an educator, musician, composer and lecturer. Want to let us know what you think about this review? Call (509) 459-3814 and leave a message, or email
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