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Saturday, November 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra, double bassist Gary Karr perform works with panache

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 15, 2019

Gary Karr, 77, is widley regarded as the greatest concert soloist on the double bass of the past 100 years. (Keith Currie)
Gary Karr, 77, is widley regarded as the greatest concert soloist on the double bass of the past 100 years. (Keith Currie)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

The late Myrtle Woldson bestowed two outstanding concert halls on Spokane: the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, home of the Spokane Symphony and performance venue for a growing variety of popular and theatrical productions, and the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center at Gonzaga University, now the home of the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra.

They are both acoustical marvels, the Fox for its liveliness and brilliance and the Gonzaga venue for the exceptional clarity and evenness of response throughout the hall. On Monday night, Ms. Woldson’s gift to Gonzaga welcomed back Gary Karr to Spokane for another performance with the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra.

It was yet another example of conductor and professor Kevin Hekmatpanah’s fabled ability to engage world-famous music celebrities to perform with his orchestra. In January, one of the world’s great violinists, Midori, will join them in a performance of Robert Schuman’s rarely heard Violin Concerto. Midori was last seen in Spokane 20 years ago, and then only because of a sizable gift from the Jewett Foundation.

Karr is regarded as the greatest concert soloist on the double bass of the past 100 years. He has distinguished himself not only by his musicianship, but also his commitment to raising the level of performance on his instrument internationally through a foundation he established and decades of touring and teaching, which have had a transformative effect on the status of the double bass in the world of music.

He and the Gonzaga orchestra, under Hekmatpanah’s direction, treated Monday’s audience to two works by famous double bass virtuosi of the 19th century: “The Concerto in A major” by Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini’s ”Fantasie” on themes from Donizetti’s opera “La Sonnambula.”

Both works were composed with the same purpose in mind: to wow audiences with the ability of their composer/performers to navigate the huge spans and tricky bowings presented by the string bass, and, even more, to make the instrument sing with a voice that is pure, clear and moving.

Composed in the same period that produced operas in a style known as “bel canto” (beautiful singing), these works are rich in melodies that require seamless legato playing and pinpoint intonation over the span of the instrument’s fingerboard.

They require artistic and athletic ability, and Karr, 77, has plenty to spare of both. Watching the agility and elegance of his playing is a pleasure in itself, though not so great as hearing the lyricism that poured forth unstintingly from his instrument.

Far from exhausted by the challenges posed by Dragonetti and Bottesini, Karr repaid the cheers of the standing audience with encores by two more 19th century Italian composers: a witty and charming “Gavotte” by Bernardo Lorenziti (1764-1814), and a “Duet for Cello and Double Bass” by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), immortal composer of “The Barber of Seville.”

In this last piece, he was joined by Hekmatpanah, himself a highly regarded cello soloist and teacher. Throughout the encores, Karr remained smiling and relaxed even as he executed passages that would make the average bass player grow pale with fear. The program opened with a specialty of the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, a performance of a major symphony of the Romantic period.

Though he does not conduct an elite band of seasoned professionals like the Spokane Symphony, Hekmatpanah never shrinks from programming big, demanding works of the symphonic repertoire and bringing them off with panache.

On Monday, we had the chance to enjoy what is arguably the greatest, though not the most famous, of Antonin Dvorak’s symphonies, No 7 in D minor Op. 70. Though considered to be Dvorak’s darkest symphony, in Hekmatpanah’s hands, the dominant impression of this performance was of an unbroken stream of glorious melody.

The composer gave us a work in which every choir of the orchestra plays an important role, not just occasionally but throughout. Unlike Brahms, for example, who wrote symphonies for string orchestra with occasional touches of color from winds and brass, Dvorak will start a melody in the strings and finish it in the winds, or, more often, create duets between strings and winds, or winds and brass, in which the strands of melody wind inextricably around one another.

In many such passages, the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra performed in a manner that would have made any conductor of any professional orchestra proud. Strings (especially the cellos) produced a richly saturated and expressive tone. The many solo and duet passages for clarinet were executed perfectly and with feeling by Harrison Smith and Kris Curtis.

Dvorak gives some of his most poignant music in this symphony to the flutes, who performed impeccably. And when, in the glorious chorale-like peroration that closes the work, the entire orchestra joined together, the result was a thrilling blend of warmth and brilliance that quickened the hearts of everyone in the theater.

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