English conductor James Lowe is the second of five candidates who have auditioned for the position of Spokane Symphony music director. He led the orchestra over the weekend through a program that allowed him to take on several roles at once: as interpreter of well-known classics, as partner with a soloist in the performance of a challenging concerto, and as leader of the West Coast premiere of a new work.
The familiar music came from two polar opposites in the Romantic movement: Franz Liszt, a flamboyant exhibitionist who embodied “the music of the future,” and Johannes Brahms, staunch defender of classical forms, who concealed a turbulent, sensitive inner life with an avuncular exterior. We heard Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody in an orchestral arrangement, and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major. Soloist in the concerto was the remarkable Haochen Zhang, gold medal winner at the Van Cliburn Competition. Brahms was represented by his Symphony No. 4 in E minor, which comprised the second half of the concert.
Composer Zhou Tian was present to introduce his new piece for large orchestra, “Rise,” which was commissioned in part by the Spokane Symphony. In attempting to capture the bittersweet emotions contained in letters and diary entries from the battlefields of World War I, Zhou exhibits both impressive command of writing for orchestra and a distinctive voice. He is able to convey complex and elusive emotions to his listeners, regardless of their level of musical sophistication. The opportunity the Spokane Symphony has given us to sample contemporary concert music shows us that we live in a new Golden Age of musical composition, and fully as worthy of our attention as the great works of the past.
Surprisingly, “Rise” also provided the aesthetic glue needed to bond together the other, apparently incompatible pieces on the program by combing the colorful tonal palette of Liszt with the psychological complexity of Brahms. In spreading out before us the scenic and emotional tapestry that Zhou created, Lowe displayed a striking ability to maintain the ongoing narrative of the piece, while also revealing a wealth of significant detail. He also was able to show most of the works on the program, despite their differences, in the best possible light. The one exception was the Liszt rhapsody, in which Lowe went looking for philosophic depths it simply doesn’t possess. He did this by exaggerating changes in tempo and dynamics to a degree approaching the ridiculous, though the virtuosity displayed by the orchestra was undeniably exciting.
The only emotional excesses in the Liszt concerto, however, came from Liszt himself. Everything in the performance itself, whether from the conductor, the soloist or the orchestra, reflected magisterial control. Criticism falls silent before a talent such as is possessed by Haochen Zhang. Though this was the first public performance of the Liszt Second Concerto for him, there is nothing left in the score for him to master. Not only has he the speed and agility (his octaves!) needed to bring an audience to its feet, but they are deployed with an awareness of style and rhetorical focus that characterize only the greatest artists. His tone throughout the piece had a brazen virility that perfectly matched Liszt’s dashing, hyper-sexed persona. As a collaborator, he remained sensitive to every inflection Lowe imparted to the score, achieving the appearance of spontaneity that comes only from total mastery.
As an encore, Haochen performed “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” from Book One of Claude Debussy’s Preludes. Astoundingly, but appropriately, the sound he coaxed from the piano was completely different from what seemed so natural for him in the Liszt. What was all virile machismo became ethereal, half-heard impressionism. The man is a wizard!
“Total mastery” also sums up the performance of the Brahms E minor Symphony that followed the intermission. The piece is intricately woven from 100,000 threads, and yet it flowed in this performance like water from a spring: fresh and inexhaustible. Lowe’s achievement in this interpretation is hard to overestimate, for, while other conductors may make more of the symphony’s propulsive energy, or look more deeply into its tragic shadows, none in my experience maintains the astounding equilibrium among all its aspects that we heard on Saturday night at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
This equilibrium also characterized the sound that Lowe achieved with our orchestra, which balanced warmth with clarity in a way that even some very great conductors have found elusive in performing the music of Brahms. The sheer beauty of sound in the second movement left us shaking our heads in wonder and hungry for more.
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