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Review: Spokane Symphony opens season by evoking Mussorgsky’s genius

Larry Lapidus Correspondent

The themes running through Saturday’s concert by the Spokane Symphony in the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, the first of the 2015-16 season, examined how composers use musical means to explore and celebrate the roots of their culture.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81) was one Russian composer committed to creating a musical vernacular based on folk culture, rather than the refined manners of 18th-century France and Italy.

His “Night on Bald Mountain” (1867) evokes a witches’ Sabbath on Mount Tiglav, near Kiev. Its violent harmonies and strident instrumentation so offended the sensibilities of composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, himself a proponent of Russian nationalism in music, that upon Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky scrubbed the score of its barbarities.  He even tacked on a conclusion to bring the work into line with prevailing standards of piety.

Though the symphony’s excellent program notes extol the virtues of Mussorgsky’s original version, what we heard on Saturday night was Rimsky’s revision. Yet, with Music Director Eckart Preu emphasizing the wild and brazen elements still present in the score, there was nothing glossy or prettified about the performance. It left one feeling amazed by the strength and authenticity of this composer’s genius.

Furthermore, eliminating Rimsky’s pious ending would have robbed us of the pleasure of Chip Phillips’ superbly inflected and long-breathed  clarinet solo, and of Bruce Bodden’s beguiling flute solo in the work’s closing minutes.

What followed was a performance of J.S. Bach’s chorale, “Komm Susser Tod, Komm Selge Ruh,” arranged by Leopold Stokowski, inserted into the program as a memorial to Gunther Schuller, noted composer, conductor, teacher and writer, and pillar of musical life in the Spokane region, who  died June 21. The sound that emanated from the stage was shockingly different from what we had just heard. It was a sound of utmost softness, warmth and beauty, in keeping with the message of the music, and made one wonder if the ensemble we heard playing “Bald Mountain” had been replaced by an entirely different one.  This is an achievement of masterful orchestra playing and conducting.

The stage was then reset for the 1926 First Piano Concerto of Bela Bartok (1881-1945), featuring soloist Cecile Licad. As it was, one noticed that the keyboard cover, which ordinarily separates the sounding board from the player, had been removed. Once the performance began, one understood why. Licad did not wish there to be any separation between any of the elements in that performance. Everything about her interpretation spoke of a drive to fuse herself into the spirit of the music and unifying herself with every other player onstage. 

The piece is not often performed, probably because it is so difficult. On Saturday night, those difficulties seemed to dissolve, partly through the superb focus and discipline of the orchestra, but even more through the force of Licad’s infallible technique. In more than 50 years of watching people play the piano, this reviewer has never seen its equal.

In response to the audience’s rapturous acclaim, Licad returned to the stage to dispatch Earl Wild’s preposterously difficult Etude on Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” as though it were child’s play.

The celebration of musical roots that we saw in the first half of the program continued through the second, which  featured  a single work: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s  Second Symphony in C minor, “Little Russian” of 1872.  Unlike the composer’s final three symphonies, this one scales no philosophic heights nor contemplates the depths of the human soul, but rather delivers  continual pleasure through an unsurpassed gift for beguiling melody and brilliant orchestration.  

The performance began with a soulful solo rendition of the Ukrainian folk song “Down by Mother Volga,” which forms the melodic basis of the first movement.  It was beautifully rendered by the orchestra’s new principal horn, Emily Browne, before being taken up with equal eloquence by principal bassoon Lynn Feller-Marshall.

As we were led through Tchaikovsky’s teeming score, we all benefited from Preu’s keen sense of pacing, which allowed the character of every phrase to be revealed and savored without ever sacrificing the forward thrust of the piece. The breathtaking finale required an extra measure of virtuosity from the orchestra, which delivered it and then some, leaving us in anticipation of what will be brought to us in the season to come.

A recording of this concert will be broadcast at 7 p.m. today on Spokane Public Radio, 91.1 FM.
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