All music is a mixture of horizontal and vertical elements. The horizontal elements are those that take shape over time as we listen to a musical passage from beginning to end. At the previous concert of the Spokane Symphony, we heard music by the greatest horizontal conductor in the history of western music: Ludwig van Beethoven, to whom, according to Leonard Bernstein, God made phone calls informing him of the right note to put next.
The concert on Saturday night at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, conducted by musical director James Lowe, began with the “Nocturnes” (1901) of Claude Debussy, who had had enough of Beethovenian significance and wished to create music that captured the thrill of experiencing beauty through the senses.
To do this, he focused on the vertical elements of music: pitch, volume and timbre. As Lowe gave the downbeat beginning the first of the three Nocturnes, “Nuages” (Clouds), he ushered us into a realm governed by pure sound: mysterious, evocative and infinitely refined. Debussy achieves variety through subtle changes in instrumentation, changing the color by moving a phrase from flute to English horn or by adding a single plucked note from the harp.
The exceptional clarity of the acoustics at the Fox allowed us to savor every change in color in the “Nocturnes,” and Lowe’s keen ear for balance maintained transparency within the large orchestra specified in the score. Superb English horn Sheila McNally-Armstrong contributed the dusky, suggestive color needed to enliven the score.
The second of the “Nocturnes,” “Fêtes” (Celebrations) introduces livelier rhythms, but even here Debussy restricts his palette, keeping the colors subdued and transitory to suggest an evening gathering obliquely lit by the flickering light of torches. Here the trumpets stepped offstage to keep the brilliance of their playing from overwhelming the subtle shifts of color elsewhere in the orchestra.
When, in the final section, “Sirènes” (Sirens), Debussy introduces female voices. Women from the Spokane Symphony Chorale supplied singing that was not only perfectly integrated with the orchestra, but also possessed the mixture of eeriness and sensuality called for by the subject.
In interpreting such a demanding work as “Nocturnes,” the conductor must maintain a balance between exaggerating the contrasts in the score, which can lead to vulgarity, and controlling them too rigidly, which can lead to dullness. It must be said that Saturday’s performance did not entirely avoid this second danger.
Had the orchestra, especially the strings and winds, been given a slightly longer leash, and been allowed a bit more leeway to impart variety and contrast within phrases and between sections, the audience would have felt more strongly the power and vitality of Debussy’s vision.
There was certainly no want of vitality in the second work on the program, Henri Tomasi’s “Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra” of 1948, in which the orchestra was joined by soloist Allen Vizzutti. The piece is famously difficult, and was, in fact, originally declared “unplayable,” since which time it has become a staple of the trumpet repertoire.
The writing for trumpet is not only difficult, but also skillful, designed to explore the full resources of the instrument and performer. Vizzutti proved to have perhaps even greater resources than the composer as he conveyed a warmth and playfulness that are quite absent from the score. Apart from providing an opportunity to display the technical expertise of the composer and soloist, the piece has little pleasure to offer.
It is made up of segments that bear little relation to one another and fail, despite the performers’ most valiant efforts, to cohere into an emotionally satisfying whole. Relief, however, was provided in the form of an encore: the popular showpiece for trumpet and orchestra, “Variations on Carnival of Venice,” by the otherwise obscure Jean-Baptiste Arban.
The piece is a vulgar, blatant but delightful display of every triple-tonguing, wide-leaping, blindingly fast trick in a trumpet virtuoso’s bag of tricks, and Vizzutti brought it off to perfection, bringing the audience to leap from their seats, which they had not the energy to do after the arid functionality of Tomasi’s concerto.
The remainder of the program was devoted to a performance of the two suites compiled by Maurice Ravel from his score to the ballet “Daphnis and Chloé” (1912). The “action” of the ballet is derived from pastoral verse of the classical period, describing the courtship of a shepherd and shepherdess, her abduction by a band of pirates, her rescue by her lover and their eventual marriage and rejoicing.
For this tepid tale, Ravel’s fertile genius provided a score of unsurpassed color, inventiveness … and difficulty. Throughout the complex score, Lowe maintained flawless instrumental balance, from which individual instrumental solos emerged to flash and gleam like diamonds on velvet. Chip Phillips, clarinet, Keith Thomas, oboe, and Mateusz Wolski, violin, all contributed solos that heightened the emotional intensity of the performance.
Bruce Bodden, principal flute, displayed his exceptional virtuosity in the solo in the Second Suite, in which the god Pan transforms the natural world and all the people in it with the mysterious power of his flute. Here, Bodden, who can flood the auditorium with color when he wants to, dialed it back to produce a tone both chaste and sensuous, perfectly attuned to Ravel’s intention while employing a means for filling the lungs with air unknown to the rest of us.
In its rendition of the choral part, which is woven throughout the score of “Daphnis and Chloé,” the Symphony Chorale displayed a similar discipline. Under the direction of Lowe or their director, Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, they produced a quality of sound, which, while full and vigorous, was less richly colored than we have heard from them.
The overall consistency reflected the ability of Lowe and the Spokane Symphony not merely to “get through” a fantastically complex score but to deliver a finished interpretation of it capable of delighting the ear and touching the heart.
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