Robert Schumann found the manuscript of Franz Schubert’s greatest symphony in the bottom of a trunk in the attic of the composer’s brother long after his death. Such stories make one wonder what other masterpieces of art lie unseen or unheard, hidden from us because of war, illness or the whims of their creators.
The audiences at this weekend’s concerts by the Spokane Symphony at the Fox had a chance to experience such a discovery. Though not to be compared with Schubert’s Symphony in C major, 1921’s “Out of the Mist” by Lilian Elkington provides a tantalizing hint of what we lost when the composer decided to abandon composition only five years after she wrote it. The work lay unseen and unplayed for 50 years until discovered by a musicologist browsing through his local bookshop.
In “Out of the Mist,” Elkington employs a large orchestra with considerable skill to evoke the arrival by ship of the body of the Unknown Warrior from the continent, where he died during World War I. The restless, unsettled shifting of harmonies she employs, her brooding snatches of melody and ambivalent orchestral colors succeed in suggesting not only the visual impact of seeing warships emerge from fog into sunshine, but also the emotional ambiguity in the notion of “heroism” emerging from the Great War, in which a generation of young men died or were damaged in order to satisfy the greed of a handful of aristocrats.
From the opening measures of “Out of the Mist,” the symphony musicians played with remarkable beauty and power. The yearning tone of John Marshall’s cello set a stamp, at once melancholy and hopeful, that persisted to the end of the piece. Music director and conductor Eckart Preu perfectly balanced such solo voices against the playing of massed strings and brass, so that every strand was audible, even in the most powerful passages for full orchestra.
This balance of power and transparency distinguished the playing of the orchestra in everything on the program, demonstrating the ability of every player in the ensemble to listen acutely, not only to their own playing, but to that of their neighbors, as though they were performing a work of chamber music for 80 players. This is precisely needed for the two remaining works on the program: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 in C major, K. 467 (1785), and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 in E-flat major Op 55, “Eroica” (1804).
The soloist in the Mozart concerto was pianist Alon Goldstein, who last performed with the orchestra in 2016, also in a concerto by Mozart. In both his pre-concert conversation with Preu and in his remarks to the audience, Goldstein emphasized the operatic nature of Mozart’s piano concertos, and spoke of the “characters” that inhabit them, as represented in the soloistic exchanges between members of the orchestra and the soloist. He is exactly right about that, so it is all the more regrettable that so little of this characterization was present in his playing. There is much to admire in his playing: an exceptionally relaxed technique allows him to produce a lovely tone at every dynamic level, and to negotiate the rapid and complex passages easily, and at great speed when called for.
In performing the music of Mozart, these are important attributes to possess, but they are not the only attributes. Mozart’s genius, like that of all the greatest artists, lay in his ability to fuse conflicting or contradictory elements into a coherent artistic whole, thus imitating life itself. Goldstein succeeded in capturing the elegance and refinement of Mozart, but missed the darker, even tragic, elements that play a vital part in his writing, even, perhaps especially, in the brightest, most buoyant passages. Tragedy is folded into Mozart’s conception of beauty, as it was into his life, and too many opportunities of seeing this were missed in this performance of his Concerto No. 21 for it to be counted a complete success, though the audience greeted the unquestioned virtues of Goldstein’s playing with enthusiasm. As an encore, he performed “Masques,” a secrtion from Leonard Bernstein’s second symphony, “The Age of Anxiety” (1949). Again, Goldstein mastered the music’s not inconsiderable technical demands with apparent ease, while suppressing the spikey, angular, sarcastic elements that give it its essential character.
The starting of the second half of this weekend’s program was a doorway through which the audience could enter into one of the most varied and dramatic landscapes in all of Western art: Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony. This inexhaustible work, if properly performed, never fails to astonish with its sheer density of ideas, its mastery of construction and faultless emotional poise.
Like Mozart’s concept of beauty, Beethoven’s idea of heroism depends as much on tragedy as it does on the power of human will to overcome it. No conductor can hope to capture all the work holds in store, and, by maintaining transparency of texture and inexorable forward momentum, Preu chose to emphasize its celebration of heroic triumph over the depictions of conflict and failure portrayed in the first three movements. The hero portrayed in Beethoven’s third symphony is the composer himself, triumphing through art over the disappointments of personal relationships and the injustice of society. Preu and his musicians allowed us not only to understand this triumph, but to feel as though we were capable of achieving it ourselves.
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