Headlining the fourth in this season’s Classics Concerts by the Spokane Symphony was the return to our city of the piano duo of Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg.
When they last played for us, it was in two concertos for two pianos. This time, it was in an arrangement by the contemporary composer Richard Dünser of a piece written by Johannes Brahms for piano, violin, viola and cello. Dünser has amplified the setting into one for piano four-hands with string orchestra, thus adding a part for bass.
As one expected, the arrangement both strengthens and weakens Brahms’ original. Brahms was a meticulous craftsman, and neurotically self-critical. Taking a melodic line that he gave to a single violin and assigning it to 20 violins can sometimes increase, and sometimes dilute, its effect. The drama of the work’s opening was so intensified by the increased volume of sound that Brahms’ original seems throttled and constrained in comparison.
Likewise, the Magyar-inflected passages in the last movement transported the audience in a way that would have been difficult for only four players. At other times, however, one was aware that what had been intended as an intimate utterance was being shared by a crowd of musicians, leading to a blander, more generalized effect than the composer intended.
Quite apart from that, the playing of Silver and Garburg was as brilliant and musicianly as we remembered it.
As we noted at their last appearance, they approach the piano quite differently from one another, and so achieve a degree of variety in phrasing and color that a single pianist would find difficult to equal. Furthermore, by commissioning this arrangement, they have opened a door onto one of Brahms’ most treasured masterpieces for an audience who otherwise might never have heard it.
So thrilled was the audience by the result that they recalled the couple to the stage for an encore: the once-familiar “Malagueña” of Ernesto Lecuona in an arrangement for piano four-hands that took advantage of both Garburg’s velvety tone and Silver’s highly individual and expressive phrasing.
If anyone ever wonders what is so enjoyable about listening to a symphony orchestra, one would only have needed to hear the performance of Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia” given by the Spokane Symphony on Saturday night to find out.
From the opening growls of the low strings and brass to the clarion call of the trumpets, the orchestra made such a glorious noise it was hard to remain in one’s seat. The playing of the brass section, anchored by the superb musicianship of Leonard Byrne, principal tuba, was especially thrilling, especially in the crystalline acoustics of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. The difficult and crucial timpani part was dispatched with amazing accuracy and control by Meagan Gillis, whose presence in the orchestra is a significant asset.
Judging from his remarks at the pre-concert lecture, Eckart Preu is nuts about the Third Symphony in C major of Jean Sibelius. While always an animated speaker, Preu on this occasion could hardly contain the flood of gestures, snatches of melody and expressions of delight that bubbled out of him. And yet, the adjectives he used: “funky,” “weird,” and “frustrating” were hardly the sort of praise he might lavish on other symphonies, say those in C major by Mozart (his “Jupiter” Symphony, K.551) or Schubert (his last and greatest symphony, D. 944).
There is nothing funky or weird about these works. Both carry the listener along on an inexorable tide of melodic inspiration and emotional energy. In the Sibelius Third, however, fragments of melody appear, only to falter. Crescendos build, and then fall silent. We feel that we are being led by an unseen hand, but to where? Only gradually do we realize that Sibelius does not want us to rely on him but on ourselves to perceive the coherence between elements, and sometimes to accept that there is none, as sometimes occurs in life.
It is a great challenge to a conductor and an orchestra to present a work of this kind, but Preu and the symphony not only succeeded but triumphed. They did so because of Preu’s unfailingly perfect choice of the correct tempo and his ability to make every detail audible without sacrificing forward momentum.
To these, of course, must be added orchestral playing of such beauty and precision as to silence criticism. Keeping textures clear is not easy in Sibelius, but the members of the symphony managed it beautifully, through careful adjustments of balance, and by making each phrase intensive expressive.
The most notable example was the duets in the second movement by Bruce Bodden and Colleen McElroy, flutes, and Chip Phillips and Daniel Cotter, clarinets. Matching tone and phrasing perfectly, they played so gently and yet so sadly as to reveal a universe of feeling in a few simple phrases.
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