Even under ordinary circumstances, the seventh Classics concert of the season by the Spokane Symphony would have attracted special attention by virtue of its program. The first half paired a brief work by one of America’s most honored living composers with an easily approachable violin concerto of notorious difficulty. The second half was devoted to the greatest symphony by the 20th century’s most significant symphonist.
Circumstances, however, are not ordinary. Our orchestra is searching for someone to take the place of Eckart Preu, current music director and principal conductor, when he leaves at the end of this season, and so interest is high in Rei Hotoda, the conductor of this past weekend’s demanding program.
Furthermore, the concerto soloist, Angelo Xiang Yu, was preceded by a reputation suggesting that we were to experience something special. We did.
Yu performed the Violin Concerto in D Op. 35 by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who is best known for the scores he provided for Hollywood films between 1934 and 1953, many featuring Errol Flynn. Korngold (1897-1957) composed his concerto in 1945 for Bronislaw Huberman, one of the century’s greatest violinists, and it was premiered by Jascha Heifetz, arguably the greatest violinist in history.
As one would expect, then, the violin part is extremely difficult, requiring the soloist to range across the fingerboard from the lowest position to the highest while clearing an encyclopedic list of technical hurdles.
Angelo Xiang Yu did all of this and more: he maintained a manner not only poised, but insouciant, as though to ask, “You call this difficult?” Unfazed by every challenge, he maintained a tone of absolute purity and intense beauty, very much in the Heifetz style and at Heifetz’s level. This critic can offer no higher praise.
Korngold drew on several of his film scores for the material of his concerto, and the scoring is accordingly rich and colorful, assuring that the orchestra is at all times an equal partner to the soloist. As she had in the work that opened the concert, Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Musica Celestis” (1991), Hotoda demonstrated extraordinary command of the orchestra, providing the soloist with locked-in support while allowing her players to stand out in Korngold’s vividly colored tapestry.
The Kernis piece, which uses only the string choirs of the orchestra and draws on the very spare resources of medieval chant as its thematic material, requires precise control over tone quality and dynamic level, which, under Hotoda’s laser-focused guidance, was executed to perfection by the strings of the Spokane Symphony.
To maintain this same degree of focus and control for a period of over an hour, as is required to perform the Symphony No. 8 in C minor of Dmitri Shostakovich, would have been a feat in itself. What made Hotoda’s achievement so remarkable is the extremely demanding nature of the symphony, which asks as much of the conductor and the orchestra, emotionally as well as technically, as any piece in the repertoire. Hotoda’s success was awe-inspiring, and that of the orchestra absolutely thrilling to anyone who cares about Spokane’s artistic life.
In its structure, the Shostakovich Eighth is polyphonic, which is to say that, rather than one group of instruments taking the melody while the others provide support and accompaniment, several groups play simultaneously musical material that is wholly independent, but which must be linked together to form a greater whole. This means that each instrument or group of instruments requires the attention of the conductor, who must at the same time see to it that the overarching shape and direction of this enormous piece be sustained.
In this, Hotoda, who, in her preconcert remarks appeared as a charming woman who loves walking and music, was revealed as an inexhaustible dynamo. She conducted everything: not simply when a chord would start, but how it would start, how it would sound while it was being played, and when and how it would end.
She was the score made flesh, come to transmit Shostakovich’s tragic vision of suffering and hope to her orchestra, and through them to us. Her sensitivity to dynamic levels and tone color, and her ability to vary them according to the score’s demands, are on a level occupied by the world’s finest conductors.
Most important, she dedicated all this skill, all this preparation and technique to providing her audience with the most gripping, most authentic emotional experience possible. The orchestra is looking for someone to lead them to a promised land of higher artistic enterprise and accomplishment.
If she is selected, Rei Hotoda could be that Moses, that pillar of fire.