The audience at Friday’s concert by the Spokane Symphony were not merely passive onlookers. They witnessed, and one hopes participated in, the power of music to transform any subject it takes up, every person who plays it or hears it, and thus our understanding of the world around us.
The first transformation at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox was achieved by an exceptional multimedia work, “Dreamland,” by contemporary Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurdsson (b. 1971). The piece consists of a suite of brief but emotionally potent musical statements performed by a chamber orchestra of 37 players augmented by recorded vocal and electronic sounds. This chamber version of the piece received its U.S. premiere by the Spokane Symphony this weekend.
While listening to the music, the audience views an aerial survey of vast tracts of the Icelandic landscape, including grassy fields, deep valleys and rushing rivers. On the composer’s instructions, the audience was informed at the outset that all of the natural areas shown in the film have since been flooded out of existence in the process of exploiting the country’s hydroelectric resources.
While the character of “Dreamland’s” several movements vary considerably, they all succeed in expressing a complex fusion of beauty with fear, melancholy or anger at the destruction of natural beauty. The orchestra’s command of this difficult music was so masterful and so effective as to allow the audience to enter completely into the composer’s worldview and, if they wished, adopt it as their own; to lay aside their own biases and take on the thoughts and feelings of a stranger from a foreign culture. Such is the transformative power of music.
The second instance of transformation was in some ways even more remarkable, since it involved music that was so familiar, perhaps over-familiar, to the audience. Indeed, the Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor Op.18 (1902) of Sergei Rachmaninov is arguably the most widely known of all piano concertos. So powerful, however, were the artistic convictions of this weekend’s soloist, Inon Barnatan, and the collaborative abilities of Music Director Eckart Preu and his orchestra, that we saw the piece emerge as though newly minted.
Barnatan showed himself to be possessed of a superbly finished and flexible technique, more than capable of reducing the thorniest passages of Rachmaninov’s concerto to child’s play. His refinement and variety of touch held the audience spellbound in his encore, Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” as arranged by Egon Petri. Even in the most exposed of Rachmaninov’s virtuoso, Barnatan used that technique to move the argument of the music forward, rather than stopping it in its tracks so that the audience could wonder at the speed and accuracy of his fingers.
He made plain in his remarks at the preconcert lecture that he regards a concerto as “extended chamber music,” the essence of which is collaboration, not competition. Still, like other great soloists who were also distinguished chamber music players, such as Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter, Barnatan never sacrificed the individuality of his own artistic voice in an effort to “blend in,” any more than did Bruce Bodden, flute, or Chip Phillips, clarinet, in the gorgeous solos they contributed to the second movement. Barnatan and Preu chose to present the concerto as a symphonic work for piano and orchestra, and, by so doing, revealed the skill and beauty of Rachmaninov’s composition in a way that we have seldom heard before.
The last transformation of the evening was conceived by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius between 1914 and 1919, and passed down to us as his Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Op. 82. Earlier symphonists, such as Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, hand their listeners juicy tunes or pregnant motives (think of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) at the outset of a piece, and then continuously transform them in a technique known as “development.”
Sibelius’ method of development rather resembles that of a photographer developing a print in the darkroom: The page, at first blank, gradually begins to reveal blotches, and then shadings, which finally coalesce into a clear image. Likewise, Sibelius’ symphony begins with snatches of melody, rhythmic fragments and harmonic patterns that succeed one another without any apparent order. In Preu’s interpretation, however, there was always a sense of ongoing progress, of an order underlying the appearance of the fragments, until, in the third and last movement, Sibelius’ triumphant melody appears, striking us as both revelatory and inevitable.
To engage an audience in a transformation of this kind, extending over half an hour, requires a conductor with a mastery of large structures and an orchestra capable of limning subtle gradations of tempo and dynamics over a long span of time. The shouts of “bravo” that filled the hall reaffirmed that we have both.
A recording of this concert will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Monday on Spokane Public Radio, 91.1 FM.