Danail Rachev kept looking at his watch.
Onstage Saturday night at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox, the guest conductor was delivering a lecture before leading the Spokane Symphony in a program of music by four Russian composers: Mikhail Glinka, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich. He would mention a bit about the composer, the historical context and the structure of the work, then glance at his watch and move along to the next item.
This proved to be a sign of things to come.
The program was well chosen to provide a concise survey of music in the Russian orchestral tradition, from its beginnings with Glinka through its flowering in the works of Tchaikovsky, to its full absorption of non-Russian influences by Shostakovich.
Works in this tradition are seldom “absolute” music – that is, they involve elements outside of themselves: a literary narrative (poems, plays, folk tales), another art form (e.g. dance, theater, painting), or historical events (national leaders, incidents in the life of the composer).
Both works in the first half, Stravinsky’s Divertimento (Suite from “The Fairy’s Kiss”), and the suite from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty,” are condensed from full ballet scores. As an exciting innovation, Tchaikovsky’s music was vitalized by the appearance onstage of ballerina Mimi Ewers. Her beauty, elegance and superb technique embodied and expressed those qualities in Tchaikovsky’s score.
Would that one could say the same of Rachev’s conducting. While on the podium, there are only a few things a conductor can do: beat time, cue instrumental entries and indicate expression. This last mysterious but vital function is accomplished partly through facial expressions and bodily movements, but primarily by subtle use of the left hand. Rachev employs his left hand primarily to turn the pages of the score, to cue entries, and to make broad, sweeping gestures to the orchestra. One could find more subtlety in the gestures of a crossing guard. As a result, the performances, while technically quite brilliant, were rather faceless, and the rapid tempi struck one as hurried, rather than passionate.
The second number in the suite from “The Sleeping Beauty” is one example. One of the composer’s most famous creations, it proceeds through the subtle interplay of melody and rhythm to build almost unbearable tension, which is finally released in one of the most ecstatic climaxes in the orchestral repertoire. To realize this effect fully, the conductor must make subtle adjustments in volume, pace and intensity of tone, none of which could be found in Saturday’s performance. The tempo was unyielding, and the dynamic level uniformly loud.
Through all of this, it must be said, the orchestra played splendidly. In their whirlwind traversal of Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla” Overture, the violins rivaled the orchestras of Leningrad and Berlin. The crucial bassoon solos in Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony were played to perfection by Lynne Feller-Marshall, as were those for clarinet by Chip Phillips. Musicianship of this caliber deserved better direction.
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