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Friday, October 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Lowe’s clarity, honesty highlight ‘Masterworks 2’ with superior guitarist Belinic

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 6, 2019, 7:09 p.m.

Guitarist Robert Belinic at Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo, California, in August. (Olivia M. Miele / Festival Moziac)
Guitarist Robert Belinic at Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo, California, in August. (Olivia M. Miele / Festival Moziac)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

While music lovers in Spokane have been eager to get to know James Lowe, the new music director of the Spokane Symphony, we must recognize that he has been eager to learn more about us, too. The quality of a live music performance is inseparable from the quality of the audience.

Musicians will tell you they depend on the energy they feel in the house to attain levels of excellence they could never achieve in the practice room, and they can finish a performance before an appreciative audience feeling refreshed and exhilarated, while playing to an uninvolved crowd leaves them exhausted.

Lowe must have been very pleased after conducting “Masterworks 2: Garden Romance,” his second pair of concerts in the orchestra’s “Masterworks” series, at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. The audience who cheered his appearance onstage, after doing the same for concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, was there not to see and be seen, but because they loved music and were eager to enjoy what the evening had in store.

They applauded at every opportunity and for every musician who took a solo. They chuckled at musical jokes, murmured at especially beautiful patches of melody and rose to their feet in appreciation for what they had been given. This positive energy was more than matched by what one could sense emanating from Lowe himself.

Even when the music did not demand it, he inspired his musicians to enliven every page, every bar, with palpable vitality. The first item on the program, a set of disparate dances by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) skillfully orchestrated by Gerard McBurney and published in 1988 as “Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1,” is charming and enjoyable but certainly not great music.

The dances bear no trace of the searing passion and bleak ironies of the composer’s “Symphony No. 8” that we heard last year on the stage of the Fox so brilliantly conducted by Rei Hotoda. Lowe could certainly have merely allowed the endearing melodies and catchy rhythms of the suite to make their transitory points and move on to the more intellectually challenging parts of the program, but he did not. Instead, every clever turn of phrase, every witty interjection was delivered with point, clarity and focus.

The audience responded by roaring their approval, especially of featured players Keith Thomas (oboe), Chip Phillips (clarinet), Bruce Bodden (flute), and Steven Radcliffe and Greg Presley (pianos). Worthy of special mention was the luxury casting of accordionist Patricia Bartell, whose playing, not only in the solo passages but also in ensemble, was characterized by all the wit, imagination and elegance we have heard so often from her.

Guitarist Robert Belinic

Having enjoyed the delightful bonne bouche of the Shostakovich-McBurney, the audience was eager to hear guitar soloist Robert Belinic take on the beloved “Concierto de Aranjuez (1939)” of Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999). He proved himself to be an artist of superior technical finish and intense emotional projection, allied with a humility that allowed him to collaborate fully with his fellow musicians in bringing to life the rich sensory fabric of Rodrigo’s concerto.

Lowe carefully maintained textures in the orchestra that were light and vibrant, exactly as we heard from Belinic’s guitar. As a result, the virtuosity required to get around the technical difficulties posed by Rodrigo’s writing for orchestra and soloist dissolved, leaving the impressions of, as Rodrigo put it, “The fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds and the gushing of fountains.”

In listening to his playing and remarks from the stage in the pre-concert lecture, one was impressed by the sincerity of Belinic. The guitar is unique in its ability to convey this quality, for the reason that, unlike the case of most other string instruments, the sound we hear is the result of unmediated contact of the string with the body of the performer.

By some neurological decoding, our minds recognize a degree of intimacy in those vibrations greater than can be found in other instruments. Thus, the experience of hearing Belinic play the guitar is like seeing directly into the heart of one who seeks beauty through music and wishes to take us with him.

The intoxicating sensuality of Rodrigo gave way in the second half of the program to the exquisite but sterile beauty of Erik Satie’s (1866-1925) “Gymnopédies 1 and 2 (1888),” composed for piano but heard in these concerts in orchestral arrangements by Satie’s vastly more gifted contemporary, Claude Debussy.

Emotional engagement

A difficult and solitary figure, Satie sought to create music as much as possible without emotional affect, music that could be experienced without engaging feeling. Fortunately, the performance on Saturday night missed that mark thanks to the sensitive orchestration by Debussy and Bodden and Thomas, whose playing commands emotional engagement.

As throughout the evening, Lowe achieved an orchestral texture of amazing transparency in which every strand made its maximum effect. From music that avoids any hint of conflict and sought otherworldly perfection, we moved to music that is as intensely human and fraught with emotion as any ever written: the Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550 (1788) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91).

Mozart’s music is famous for its perfection of proportion and balance. In the G minor Symphony, however, that perfection is one element in a duality, the other portion of which is the disorder and suffering that inevitably come to us in time. Mozart shifts tonality throughout the piece from minor to major, and back again, to make us feel the insecurity and impermanence of earthly happiness.

In the second movement of the work, the Andante, Mozart begins to state a cheerful diatonic melody in the major only to sour it with a shrilly dissonant chromatic accompaniment that drains the melody of its cheerful energy.

The finale of the work, ordinarily a place for triumph over all of the difficulties that went before it, is in this symphony an expression of anger and disappointment, as attempts at cheerful nonchalance are interrupted by harsh dissonances and pastoral melodies in the major sour into the minor.

Lowe was uncompromising in portraying the stressful emotions of this greatest of all Mozart’s symphonies. He reduced the sweetness of the violins by having them play with little or no vibrato. He asked for bowings that sharpened the outlines of phrases rather than smoothing them over.

Most of all, the impressive clarity we noted throughout the earlier parts of the concert was maintained throughout Mozart’s far deeper and more complex musical argument, allowing us to feel every wrenching disappointment, every burst of anger as though it were our own. Lowe’s unstinting clarity and honesty of musical vision, and his ability to bring that vision to us through music, are beginning to emerge as his most outstanding qualities.

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