The audience at Saturday’s concert of the Spokane Symphony was treated to an exceptionally rich program, offering six works by six unique composers of the 20th century, five of whom were born in the United States. Coming on the heels of the presidential inauguration, the program allowed us to contemplate what it means to be American by seeing how the question was answered by five sensitive and ambitious artists.
Two of the composers on the program were African-American: Scott Joplin (1868-1917), whose father was a slave, and Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974). Both achieved fame and some degree of material success through their mastery of short dance forms. They could have rested on such laurels, but both were artistically ambitious, and realized that renown in the world of the musical mainstream, which is to say, in white/European culture, was reserved for masters of larger forms: operas, symphonies, and so on, such as appeared on this weekend’s program.
Joplin’s most notable effort in a larger form is his opera, “Treemonisha” (1910), the overture to which, as reconstructed by T.J. Anderson, opened the program. Joplin’s hallmark ragtime rhythms appear in the overture, along with his nostalgic lyricism, fused into a larger whole. The melodies are not merely strung together, but incorporated into a musical structure that mirrors the narrative of the opera. The fusion is not successful by the standards of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, but its very naiveté underlines the freshness and originality of Joplin’s vision. In the vigorous and pointed rendition by the Spokane Symphony, it transported the listener back to a world capable of enjoying innocent melodrama and Sunday band concerts in the park.
Ellington’s “Harlem” is an ambitious tone-poem written in the idiom of big band jazz. In it, Ellington leads the listener on a walk through Harlem in 1950, through various ethnic neighborhoods, to the main drag of 125th Street, to watch a parade go by and think, perhaps, of the Cotton Club, where the composer’s magnificent band held sway for years.
Eyes popped on Saturday night when the orchestra morphed from a cheerful parlor ensemble playing Joplin’s cakewalks into a powerful dance band that really swung. Principal trumpet Larry Jess transformed the bright, bandbox timbre of his playing in the Joplin piece to a smoky, sexy quality perfectly suited to the Ellington work. Rick Westrick’s work at the drum set, bringing the walk up Seventh Avenue to an exultant conclusion, was greeted by shouts of excitement from the audience.
From the African-American world of Joplin and Ellington, Saturday’s program shifted to works by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and John Adams, which display scarcely a hint of jazz influence. Barber’s overture to “The School for Scandal,” Op. 5 (1931) successfully displayed his credentials to the East Coast musical establishment as a young master of European forms. The makeup of the orchestra, the structure of the piece, even its essential harmonic language would have been familiar to W.A. Mozart. While deftly composed and altogether charming, it might just as well have been composed by a contemporaneous European composer.
Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” originally composed for his phenomenally successful 1987 opera, “Nixon in China,” is a brilliant example of the composer’s mastery of minimalist techniques in portraying the collision of a sensual dream world with the deadening, monotonous reality of a Communist Party conference. The orchestra dealt masterfully with Adams’ exacting demands for rhythmic precision and instrumental virtuosity, producing a tapestry of sound that was totally engrossing and, for all its frenetic activity, genuinely touching.
In George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) “An American in Paris,” we heard the jazzy vigor of Joplin and Ellington combined with the European symphonic tradition, all fused with the genius of a master melodist.
While the instrumental virtuosity of such principals of the orchestra as Chip Phillips (clarinet), Bruce Bodden (flute) and the magnificent Leonard Byrne (tuba) shined brightly, music director Eckart Preu approached the piece in a way that failed to realize its full potential. While one might agree with the assertion he made in his preconcert remarks that “An American in Paris” is hard to “swing” in the same way one can Ellington’s “Harlem,” it need not be performed with quite the inflexible regularity of tempo that we heard on Saturday night. The piece portrays the encounter of Gallic precision with American impudence and informality, as represented in the score by elements of African-American jazz. At the almost stately and rigorously maintained tempos adopted by Preu, the more inflammatory and exultant aspects of the piece smoldered, rather than bursting, as they should, into flame.
Set in the middle of this revealing survey of American music, like a llama in a group of sheep, was the Second Violin Concerto in G minor Op. 63 (1935) of the very Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).
The soloist in the concerto was the orchestra’s concertmaster, Mateusz Wolski, who performed his part with a combination of instrumental perfection and emotional intensity that stands comparison with the finest violinists ever to take the piece into their repertoire. With Preu and the orchestra providing precise and passionate support, Wolski achieved the goal of all violinists: producing the effect of a wordless human voice, capable of touching the hearts of all listeners, regardless of what language they may speak.
A recording of this concert will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Monday on Spokane Public Radio, 91.1 FM.
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