The audience thinned out a bit over the intermission at Saturday night’s concert by the Spokane Symphony, the second Classics Concert of the 2018-19 season at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. It is not hard to guess why: Many people were attracted to the concert as an opportunity to see and hear the “Red Violin,” or rather the Stradivarius violin which inspired Francois Girard to write the screenplay for his 1998 film of the same name.
The instrument was played in the first half of the program by its owner, Elizabeth Pitcairn, in a work titled “The Red Violin: A Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra” (1996) by John Corigliano, which draws its substance from his score for the film. The conductor for the evening was Resident Conductor Morihiko Nakahara, appearing in the novel role of finalist for the position of music director, to replace the departing Eckart Preu.
The second half of the program was comprised of a single work, the Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 by Tchaikovsky, and one imagines that many in the audience, familiar with the work and with the conductor, felt that, as agreeable as the performance would no doubt be, it would not be so unique as to compensate for losing the chance of beating the traffic home for an early night.
They were very seriously mistaken.
What they missed was a performance that will stand in the annals of the orchestra as one that redefined its capabilities and fired the imagination of every listener who cares for the future of the arts in Spokane.
Extraordinary orchestras all have one attribute in common: a very high degree of flexibility, as displayed in three aspects of their performance: tone color, tempo and dynamic range. The extraordinary orchestra can vary all of these qualities with quicksilver rapidity, swelling and then diminishing the volume of a phrase, or of a single note, lightening or darkening their tone for an instant, and, perhaps most important, increasing or retarding their speed to create the impression of natural, spontaneous utterance. All of this must be done without sacrificing beauty of sound or perfection of ensemble
By the same token, an extraordinary conductor is one who harnesses these capabilities and applies them, bar by bar, fusing them into something organic, comprehensible and meaningful. The result is a performance that lifts the music off the page and places it in the hearts and minds of the audience, allowing them to think and feel more fully and more intensely than is ordinarily possible. That is what we experienced in the second half of Saturday’s concert, and there were many in the audience who would not have exchanged it for the world, much less for a hot toddy. The emotion in the hall at the conclusion of the concert was closer to hysteria than to enthusiasm.
The attributes of an extraordinary violin are not unlike those of the orchestra: exceptional range of color and dynamics, and an acute sensitivity to the slightest variations in bow speed and pressure. Pitcairn’s violin, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1720 and known as the “Mendelssohn,” after one of its owners, possesses all these qualities to a degree exceptional even compared with other instruments by that fabled maker.
Much more important, however, is that Pitcairn is able to exploit the full resources of her magnificent instrument, and to use it to project her own, highly distinctive voice, clearly audible despite the staggering technical difficulties which Corigliano pitilessly places in her path.
The composer’s father, also named John, was a distinguished violinist. His son grew up with a deep understanding of how much the instrument was capable of, and just how hard it is to master. Contrary to what one might expect, such mastery grows more difficult the better one’s instrument is, but that Pitcairn has achieved that mastery was left in no doubt.
She sings with a deep, steady lyricism that perfectly expresses the elegiac character of Corigliano’s “Chaconne,” and whets one’s desire to hear her in a broad range of repertoire. As it was, she offered as an encore Nicolo Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” Op. 11. Through each of the 3,120 16th notes of the piece, played at a staggering velocity, Pitcairn maintained a buoyant, Italianate lightness that remains in the mind like the memory of a fine Tuscan claret.
The concert began with a more recent work by Chinese composer Tan Dun, his “Symphonic Poem of 3 Notes.” He is renowned for his works both for the concert hall and for the screen, as in his acclaimed score for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), in which he displays the same rich imagination and extravagant tonal palette we heard in “3 Notes.”
Though of short duration, the work presents immense difficulties, which were executed by Nakahara and the Spokane Symphony with utter mastery, giving us a glimpse of what lay ahead in the program, and what may lie ahead in the orchestra’s future. Nakahara’s fellow finalists had best get to work: this weekend showed that the bar has been set awfully high.
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