There may have been some in the audience of this weekend’s concerts by the Spokane Symphony who harbored a secret wish that the concerts had not gone so well as they did.
This perverse wish arose from the fact that the orchestra was auditioning five candidates for the position of music director, and the three previous candidates we had a chance to hear, Morihiko Nakahara, James Lowe, and Rei Hotoda, had all performed brilliantly.
It would have made things much easier if Arthur Arnold, the fourth finalist and conductor of these concerts, had proved to be at least a little less outstanding, just slightly less worthy of consideration. If anyone really did harbor such hopes, they were dashed.
There were three works on the program. Two of them, the Third Violin Concerto of Charles Camille Saint-Saens (1880) and the “Concerto for Orchestra” (1944) of Bela Bartok, had been selected by others. The third, Francis Poulenc’s “Les Biches” (1923/1939), was chosen by Arnold himself, and proved an excellent choice. The music is thoroughly approachable, deliciously witty, and wonderfully well suited to showing off the orchestra as well as Arnold’s own skill at helping the orchestra transform the notes on the page into sounds that thrill an audience.
Poulenc’s “Les Biches” is something of a concerto for orchestra itself, as it is sprinkled with solo passages of daunting difficulty and dazzling effect. Some of the best were taken by principal trumpet Larry Jess, whose playing throughout the evening showed that a great musician never stops his pursuit of perfection. Keith Thomas, oboe, Chip Phillips, clarinet, and Emily Brown, horn, also performed their customary wonders.
Guiding them all was the ever-sensitive ear of Arnold, who showed remarkable ability to imbue every passage with striking color and character. When, for example, Poulenc’s demands shifted from clipped staccato phrasing to a smooth, sensuous legato, Arnold would set down his baton and mould the phrases with his hands and shoulders, not to put on a show for the audience, but to communicate his wishes more exactly to the musicians. It seemed to work.
Poulenc is notable for suddenly interrupting music of lighthearted with a passage of piercing beauty. When this occurred in the “Adagietto” movement, Arnold was ready for him, and gave the violins their full head. The effect took one’s breath away.
These traits of vivid characterization, refinement of texture and imaginative use of color found their fullest expression in Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which closed the program. It is one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century, and also one of its greatest examples of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
Arnold’s mastery of the piece is complete. He presented each phrase to us as a jeweler lays out diamonds on a square of velvet. Nor can we ignore the achievement of the Spokane Symphony, whose every member played, both individually and corporately, with unflagging rhythmic precision and beauty of tone. On two occasions, Bartok asks for a very soft tremolo created by a rapid vibration of the bow on the string. The strings executed this so amazingly as to produce not so much a sound, as pure, disembodied emotion. Search as you may, you won’t find it on any record.
Closing the first half of the program was the Saint-Saens’ Concerto, with the remarkable violinist Simone Porter, a native of Seattle, as soloist. If you wish to know what Simone Porter can do on the violin, the answer is simple: whatever she wants.
An utterly perfect technique allows her to take on passages of the most hair-raising difficulty with complete poise and relaxation. Her right-arm technique, in particular, enables her to achieve quicksilver changes in color, and to spin out long legato phrases without the hint of a break.
While this formidable equipment allowed her easily to overcome all the challenges that Saint-Saens could throw at her, on matters of style, the conquest was not so complete. Though Saint-Saens was clearly a Romantic, he adhered quite strictly to the compositional methods of the earlier Classical and Baroque periods. His was a brand of Romanticism that expressed passion through restraint, rather than license.
From her opening entry, however, Porter announced her intention to wring every ounce of feeling from every phrase. She did this by creating a swell of volume and timbre on notes and phrases to suggest surges of barely containable feeling.
This approach would have suited very well the Violin Concerto of Korngold we heard at the previous Classics Concert, which drips with lurid sensuality, but it created a dissonance with the lapidary classicism of Saint-Saens.
There was far more to admire, however, than to criticize in Porter’s brilliant performance, not least of all her sensitive partnership with the orchestra.
The ecstatic duet with Chip Phillips, for example, that ended the second movement, was an example of musicianship at the highest level. She thanked the audience for its enthusiastic acclaim by playing the second movement, “Double,” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B minor.
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