This weekend’s Classics 5 concert by the Spokane Symphony marked the midpoint of the 15th and final season in which Eckart Preu has led the orchestra as its music director and principal conductor.
Of the five concerts remaining in the season, four will be conducted by candidates for Preu’s job. As if to make dramatically clear how high the bar has been set for them, Classics 5 gave us an impressive example of Preu in three facets of the role he is leaving: program builder, skilled conductor, and supportive colleague.
As a program builder, Preu has consistently shown himself able to attract the widest possible audience by combining what is new with what is familiar.
Miguel de Aguila, whose “Chattauquan Summer” (2004) opened the program, is a contemporary composer (b. 1957) whose musical language is as engaging to a seasoned concert-goer as it is to someone who is seeing a symphony orchestra for the first time. The audience, accustomed to works by composers long dead, was thrilled when he appeared onstage to introduce his piece.
Antonin Dvorak and Sergei Rachmaninoff, both among the most widely known composers of symphonic music, were represented on the program by lesser-known works: The A minor Violin Concerto (1883) of Dvorak and Rachmaninoff’s seldom heard choral symphony, “The Bells” (1913). Soloist in the Dvorak was Spokane’s greatly admired concertmaster, Mateusz Wolski.
For all the Rachmaninoff lovers in the audience, “The Bells” was a must-see, since many people go through a lifetime of concert-going without ever encountering it. The reasons are not hard to find. First, it is costly to produce, requiring huge forces, including full orchestra, three vocal soloists and a mixed choir, all of whom are called upon to perform music of considerable difficulty. Second, the work is a setting of a text that is hard to love. If you entered the theater expecting to hear the delightful and inventive poem by Edgar Allen Poe, you would have been at least surprised, and likely disappointed.
Rachmaninoff devoted his considerable resources to setting a poem by the obscure Russian symbolist Konstantin Balmont, who substitutes for Poe’s sheer delight in the power of language a morose obsession with the inevitability of death which was popular during the Romantic era, but which now strikes us as quaint and outmoded.
For those, however, who could set aside the triviality of the work’s raison d’etre, there was much to enjoy. All three soloists were absolutely outstanding. Tenor Kirk Dougherty exhibited not only thrilling, ringing tone and immaculate diction, but a commanding dramatic presence. Soprano Dina Kuznetsova packed Rachmaninoff’s soaring melodic lines in plush velvet, and, if some syllables were indistinct, the authentic, Russian lyric intensity was never lost.
Perhaps the most vivid impression was left by bass Kerry Wilkerson, whose plangent, exciting tone was perfectly even throughout his exceptionally wide range. In his mouth, even Balmont’s chalky verse was transmuted to pure gold.
We should note that thanks for providing us the luxury of hearing three soloists of international reputation in such unfamiliar repertoire is due to the commitment of sponsors Maxine Kopczynski and Doug and Gail Belanger. Without their support, such programming would be an idle daydream.
Another vital component in the success of the performance was the singing of the Spokane Symphony Chorale, a volunteer organization, and, since 1978, an indispensable part of the Spokane Symphony. Under their director, Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, their every entry sent a jolt of electricity through the music, thanks to the power, flexibility and transparency of their singing. The third movement, “The Loud Alarum Bells,” contains some extremely difficult music for chorus, in which the various voice-groups separate to echo, answer or oppose one another, all at a breakneck tempo.
The dramatic immediacy of their singing blew the dust off the creaky English translation of Balmont’s text by the immortal Fanny Copeland, and had us all clutching our armrests for dear life.
Preu directed the large and diverse forces demanded by Rachmaninoff with unflagging focus and force of command. His role of supportive colleague came with his partnership with Wolski in the Dvorak Concerto, which closed the first half of the program.
It may be an illusion, but it seems that at every hearing, Wolski’s stature as a violinist and an artist grows. In last season’s memorable rendition of the Brahms’ Violin Concerto, he galvanized the score with the intensity of his playing.
In Saturday night’s performance of the Dvorak Concerto, he added to this intensity a new dimension of penetrating beauty in the highest portions of the violin’s range. Dvorak includes many passages in which the soloist must play perilously close to the bridge. Not only was intonation pure, but we heard varieties of color that seemed greater than were evident in past performances.
There was also a greater degree of freedom – even audacity – in attacking tricky virtuoso passages that imparted an air of deviltry and flamboyance that seemed to excite the members of the orchestra as much as the audience.
In one way, the choice of the Dvorak Concerto as a solo vehicle for the concertmaster was ideal, because virtually all of the most beautiful and telling passages for the soloist are, in fact, not solo passages, but are duets or trios with colleagues in the orchestra. Dvorak’s favorite technique in such passages, here as in his more celebrated Cello Concerto, is to go to the woodwinds for contrasts in color.
This provided welcome opportunities to savor the playing of such outstanding members of the orchestra as Bruce Bodden, flute, Chip Phillips, clarinet, and Keith Thomas, oboe. In the four upcoming concerts, in which we “audition” candidates for the position of conductor, we will be listening to hear whether they feel free to play at the same exalted level.
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