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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Inaugural symphonies explore color, rhythm, melody

Larry Lapidus Correspondent

If rhythm, melody, form and color are the foundations of music – as we were taught – then Eckart Preu and the Spokane Symphony have explored all four with us in their first two concerts of the season at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

The inaugural concert brought us works by masters of form and melody: J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms. This weekend’s concerts could be viewed as a celebration of the power of rhythm and color to transport us from our daily lives to other times and places, and to provide us with, above all, sheer pleasure.

Works by five composers appeared on this weekend’s program: the 34-year-old Serbian composer Marko Nikodijevic, Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), Cesar Franck (1822-1890), Manuel De Falla (1876-1946), and the 63-year-old Mexican composer Arturo Marquez. All possessed (or possess) brilliant and original aural imaginations, which enabled them to marshal the resources of the symphony orchestra in ways that are distinctive and exciting. Nikodijevic’s enigmatically titled “GHB/tanzaggregat” of 2009-11, receiving its U.S. premiere in these concerts, showed that the reserves possessed by the modern symphony orchestra of fresh and expressive color are far from exhausted.

If Preu indeed set out to demonstrate the captivating power of color, he could not have chosen a finer soloist than Joyce Yang, who took on the very different, but equally challenging, piano parts in Franck’s Symphonic Variations (1885) and de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” (1909-15). Yang’s career was launched when she took a silver medal in the 2005 Van Cliburn Competition, but her gifts go far beyond the thundering octaves and pearly scales that win competitions. Her aural imagination is a match for the composers whose works she performs. She can hear shades of color in every phrase, and has the technique to draw those sounds out of the piano.

De Falla’s “Nights” was the most coloristic piece on the program. It tells no story and makes no statement, but rather attempts to summon up the atmosphere of three Spanish gardens. De Falla’s practice is to place the piano within the orchestral texture, to enhance or supplement, rather than oppose it. Yang accomplished this brilliantly, coaxing from a somewhat recalcitrant Steinway a greater range of color than it has yielded up since Daniil Trifonov’s unforgettable appearances here.

The Franck Symphonic Variations, written 30 years before the de Falla piece, and, thus, before the rise of Impressionism, is not usually considered a highly colorful work. That opinion, however, did not stand a chance when confronted by the wealth of color Preu and his soloist found in the piece. Especially outstanding was the work of the low strings – basses, cellos and violas – who played with great warmth and variety of tone, giving passionate voice to Franck’s brooding phrases. Yang took advantage of her vast technical resources, suggesting similarities between Franck and Sergei Rachmaninov that this listener would never have imagined.

The most substantial work on the program, and one that deserves much more frequent hearing, was Villa-Lobos’ “Uirapuru,” a brilliant tone poem that exploits the full resources of the modern orchestra. The uirapuru is a Brazilian bird, as well as the character in a Brazilian myth. Villa-Lobos based a recurring motif in the piece on the actual bird’s song, which we can follow through the orchestra. Its transmigration from Bruce Bodden, flute, to Greg Yasinitsky, tenor saxophone, and then to Mateusz Wolski, violin, allowed us to hear three master musicians employing their instruments to reveal an apparently unlimited universe of color.

The final work on the program, Marquez’s Danzon No. 2, is probably the most popular among current audiences, thanks to the advocacy of Gustavo Dudamel, charismatic music director and conductor of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Infectious as Dudamel’s performances are, the greater precision and clarity achieved by Preu and his orchestra actually increased the intensity of the colors and the compelling force of the rhythm, as one could tell from the number in the audience tapping their feet before rising to cheer and applaud.

Listen to a recording of this concert at 7 p.m. today on Spokane Public Radio, 91.1 FM.
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