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Concert review: Symphony, soloist Mira Wang, give exquisite launch of Rasch’s ‘Tropoi’

Violinist Mira Wang, pictured in 2017, plays the Ames Stradivarius violin in New York. Wang and the Spokane Symphony performed the U.S. premiere of “Tropoi,” by Torsten Rasch, this weekend. (Seth Wenig / Associated Press)
Violinist Mira Wang, pictured in 2017, plays the Ames Stradivarius violin in New York. Wang and the Spokane Symphony performed the U.S. premiere of “Tropoi,” by Torsten Rasch, this weekend. (Seth Wenig / Associated Press)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

Thanks in part to the generosity Spokane benefactors Michael Ebinger and Britt Ravnan, not only Spokane but the entire world of music has been made richer by the addition of an important new violin concerto, “Tropoi,” by German composer Torsten Rasch. The piece was commissioned by the Spokane Symphony, along with the Dresden Philharmonic and South Carolina Philharmonic, and received its United States premiere performance at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

In several pre-concert talks and interviews, music director Eckart Preu, a friend of the composer, expressed some apprehension as to how a piece written in such a modern idiom would be received by Spokane audiences. He need not have worried. Its reception was enthusiastic, due to no small degree to the blazing advocacy of the soloist, violinist Mira Wang, whose mastery of the taxing solo part set a standard which future performers of the work will find hard to match.

Rasch’s concerto was inspired by the 1993 novel “Melodien” by Helmut Krausser, a fantastical/philosophical tale of the pursuit of legendary “tropes,” or turns of melody, that possess the power to transmute the destructive forces of human passion into peaceful, productive energy. The concerto portrays these tropes as they are drawn from their celestial home, put into effect in combat against earthly strife and corruption, only to be lost again. Rasch’s mastery of orchestral effect allows him to exploit the obvious cinematic potential of this tale, from the eerie, timeless stillness from which the powerful tropoi emerge to their wild confrontation, and ultimate conquest, of the forces of destruction and disorder.

Both the source and target of this potent energy is the violinist, who is required to exploit resources of the instrument that Paganini never dreamed of. Wang brought even the most bizarre and strenuous of Rasch’s imaginings before us as things of beauty: colorful, evocative and consoling. From the lowest chest tones of her Stradivarius to its stratospheric harmonics, her command of bow speed and pressure produced tropes of delight and amazement.

Remote as it may appear to be from the world of “Tropoi,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s perennial favorite, “Scheherazade” (1888) proved a most satisfying choice to close the program, for what is it if not, like the Rasch concerto, another retelling of the myth of Orpheus, who silenced the hounds of hell with his songs? In place of Rasch’s mystic melodies, we have the mesmerizing voice of the Sultana, keeping at bay the fierce vengeance of her husband with endlessly entrancing tales of exotic lands and overcoming terrible dangers? Significantly, Rimsky chooses the solo violin to embody Scheherazade’s wily, sensuous character. Responsibility for this crucial part fell, fortunately, to concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, who brought to it not only beauty of tone and technical accuracy, but the uniqueness of character that distinguishes a master musician.

Not that Wolski was alone in this effort. Preu was just as intent on making sure that not a single phrase or motif failed to make its proper impact. At times, this emphasis on maintaining forward momentum put pressure on phrases that would have benefitted from greater relaxation, resulting in the occasional loss of some of the sensuous character that is so central to this piece and producing an effect of rigidity that one is tempted to describe as “Germanic.”

In composing “Scheherazade,” Rimsky-Korsakov included a myriad of virtuoso passages, all of which were delivered brilliantly by members of the Spokane Symphony. One remembers especially both the Gatling-gun triple-tonguing and the silvery purity in lyrical passages by principal trumpet Larry Jess, the dazzling arabesques of principal clarinet Chip Phillips, the quiet eloquence of assistant principal cellist Helen Byrne, and the eye-popping piccolo fireworks in the last movement by Alaina Bercilla.

To observe the 333rd anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, the program opened with a deeply affecting rendition of Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of a hymn by the great Lutheran master, “Komm susser Tod (Come, Sweet Death).” The music seemed to consecrate the hall and the presence of everyone in it to the pursuit of something higher than the stuff of daily life, and to demonstrate that the composer had at his constant command that elusive “magic” that other composers have sought and attained, if at all, only fitfully.

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