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Concert review: Exquisite display of memorable music enlivens weekend

Dec. 10, 2018 Updated Tue., Dec. 11, 2018 at 3:40 p.m.

Eckart Preu and Zuill Bailey (The Spokesman-Review/Associated Press)
Eckart Preu and Zuill Bailey (The Spokesman-Review/Associated Press)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

You know how it is this time of year: people hunkering down, getting ready for the holidays. Many of the big films haven’t opened yet, nor have the touring stage productions. Pretty quiet. Unless, that is, you love music, and you happened to be in Spokane this weekend. In that case, you had almost more than you could handle.

On Saturday evening, Eckart Preu, music director of the Spokane Symphony, assembled most of the principal players of the orchestra for an evening of Baroque music performed in the welcoming ambiance and excellent acoustics of Westminster Congregational Church.

On offer were four baroque concertos, all products of the early 18th century, and three selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s choral masterpiece, “Christmas Oratorio” (1734). One of the concertos was also by Bach, his Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The other three were by older masters Francesco Manfredini, Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Torelli.

Sandwiching three concertos of lesser stature between works of Bach is a bit like placing a Bonsai garden in the midst of a redwood forest. As gracious, tuneful and skillfully constructed as the earlier works were, they could not stand comparison with the irresistible energy and brilliance of Bach. The cyclonic energy that bursts forth in the opening measure of the third Brandenburg Concerto carries all before it to the final closing chord.

It was fascinating to watch as Bach moved the principal voices from one player or group of players to another. Despite the speed and complexity of the piece, every entry was perfect, every unison chord attacked with precision. At the same time, every measure radiated the joy of fresh discovery of Bach’s genius and the sheer pleasure of making music at such a high level.

One saw it also on the faces of many of the players, which shone with smiles throughout much of the performance.

The Vivaldi concerto was the fourth in his celebrated group of concertos known as “The Four Seasons”: the “Winter” concerto. As soloist, we had the symphony’s charismatic concertmaster, Mateusz Wolski, who threaded his way fearlessly through Vivaldi’s difficult writing for the violin, extracting every ounce of vitality, color and pathos the composer intended.

The speed at which Wolski attacked the solo part in the last movement seemed scarcely believable until, in the final measures, the entire orchestra joined him at the same terrific pace. The effect brought down the house.

The evening concluded as the orchestra was joined by the Spokane Symphony Chorale in the opening and closing choruses of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” and of a reflective segment the melody of which was made familiar through its adaptation by Peter, Paul and Mary in the protest song “Because All Men are Brothers.”

In addition to firmness of sound, clarity of diction and accuracy of intonation, the chorale’s music director, Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, has also imparted an urgency of declamation and passionate communicative force that radiated throughout the performance. At its end, many in the audience, I am sure, were left hoping to hear a complete performance of the work in the near future.

On Sunday afternoon, Barrister Winery opened its doors once again to the Northwest BachFest and its director, Zuill Bailey. For this performance, Bailey brought together three close friends who also happen to be among the finest musicians in the country: Benjamin Breen, violin; Martin Sher, viola; and Awadagin Pratt, piano. The cello part, it need hardly be said, was performed with his customary sensitivity and refinement by Bailey himself.

The four friends performed two piano quartets written by famous composers who were themselves close friends: Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. We heard Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, and Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 3 in C Minor. So successful were the four players in fusing their individual identities into a single voice, it is hard to single out individual contributions.

Still, it should be mentioned that the high points of both quartets come in the deeply poignant slow movements, which contain some of both composers’ most inspired inventions. In both pieces, these gorgeous melodies are voiced primarily by the cello, giving the listener further evidence, if any were needed, of Bailey’s unmatched eloquence.

Furthermore, it would be hard to imagine a pianist more ideally suited to the Romantic world of Schumann’s and Brahms’ chamber music than Pratt, whose full, warm, tone and technical fluency laid down a rich, colorful carpet upon which his colleagues could rely with complete confidence. Pratt’s magnificent performance proved that, in playing the piano, relaxation and passion are not contraries, but complements: that a relaxed and poised technique is the key to unlocking the full resources of the instrument.

And so the concert let out before 5, allowing time for a good meal and, if one had the stamina, even more music.

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