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Friday, February 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Symphony review: Brilliant concerto lights up the Fox

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 12, 2017

By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

The art-deco splendor of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox this weekend served its highest and best purpose: As a place where people who love all kinds of music can come together to enjoy both familiar and unfamiliar music of the past, and also take pleasure in the best that today’s composers and performers can offer.

The centerpiece of the program was the 2014 Cello Concerto of Mason Bates, whose “Mothership” was performed last year by the Spokane Symphony under its music director, Eckart Preu. The soloist in the concerto was its dedicatee, Josh Roman, who collaborated closely with Bates in its composition. The conductor this time was Morihiko Nakahara, the orchestra’s resident conductor, whose appearances with the orchestra are always eagerly anticipated. The composer, soloist and conductor epitomize the best qualities in contemporary concert music: a deep understanding of the resources of their medium, an intolerance of outmoded notions of propriety or decorum, and a passionate desire to communicate something genuine to their audience.

One of the most widely played and admired of today’s composers, Bates is known for combining electronica with traditional instruments. “Mothership” is an example. Composers were attracted to electronic or digital sounds as a means of broadening their sonic palette beyond what was possible for a traditional symphony orchestra. In a mildly ironic reversal, Bates asks the orchestra in his Cello Concerto to imitate sounds of the digital domain with their funny old strings, winds and brass. The results are bracing, lively and frequently beautiful. Bates has a wide-ranging imagination and a keen sense of beauty, which often emerges suddenly from the texture of the concerto to take the breath away.

Achieving split-second accuracy in the digital domain is easy as long as one uses the right software. To do so in the analog world of the symphony orchestra requires patience, skill and dedication. Bates asks for sudden shifts in dynamics and rapid interchanges of statement-and-answer between soloist and orchestra, as well as advanced instrumental techniques of bowing, fingering and phrasing that demand a high degree of virtuosity. Saturday’s performance saw all of these demands met almost nonchalantly, with a degree of perfection that suggested years of familiarity, not a few intense hours of rehearsal time. Roman’s performance of the solo part in particular demonstrated almost unimaginable mastery of his instrument. He sits calmly and quietly on his chair, while his fingers and arms perform feats that would have some professionals exchanging their instruments for food.

The result was a performance that contained everything that makes music enjoyable: beauty of sound, serene tranquility, aching lyricism and buoyant good humor. It is hard to imagine anyone who appreciates any type of music who would not have taken pleasure from it.

The same could easily be said of the other three works on the program, all of them written by established masters of 19th-century Romanticism: Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). They are all called “overtures,” though only one, Berlioz’s Overture to his opera, “Beatrice et Benedict,” was actually intended as the opening or introduction to anything. The others, Tchaikovsky’s “Hamlet” (1888) and “Romeo and Juliet” (1869) are “fantasy overtures” – independent concert works intended to suggest some of the themes, emotions and characters of Shakespeare’s plays.

Although these works were composed well over a century before Bates’ concerto, they share many of the demands it makes of the performers. Familiar attributes of Berlioz, as evidenced in his delightful overture, include sudden explosive outbursts of sound, fragments of melody popping up unexpectedly in different parts of the orchestra. Here, as in the Bates piece, the guiding hand and ear of Nakahara made everything flow. Every obstacle Berlioz throws into the players’ path was accommodated comfortably in Nakahara’s masterful confection of high spirits and hilarity.

Those in the audience who had heard Nakahara’s earlier work with the orchestra, either in the Classics or Pops series, or in his cherished renditions of “The Nutcracker,” immediately recognized his characteristic precision of execution and homogeneity of sound, in which the different choirs of the orchestra and solo contributions are woven into a sonorous tapestry of sound. It is arguable that some measure of color and spontaneity is lost in this approach, but the compensations are treasured. As an example, the point in the “Romeo and Juliet” Overture at which tempestuous music gives way to the famous theme of the young lovers was brought off with such mastery as to make it seem that a perfumed breath of spring had mysteriously been released into the theater. Memories of such moments are elusive. They evade whatever attempt we might make to record or reproduce them.

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

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