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Review: Midori and Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra master Schumann’s violin concerto

Violinist Midori performed with the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra at Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Thursday evening in downtown Spokane. (Timothy Green)
Violinist Midori performed with the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra at Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Thursday evening in downtown Spokane. (Timothy Green)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

Kevin Hekmatpanah, music professor at Gonzaga University and director of the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra, has scored yet another coup in bringing to Spokane one of the world’s greatest musicians, the Japanese-born American violinist Midori.

Those who missed Thursday’s concert at Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, in which Midori performed the Violin Concerto in D minor by Robert Schumann, can catch her performance of the same work at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Musikverein’s main concert hall in Vienna, Austria, at which she’ll be partnered with the world’s greatest orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic.

It is not the external signs of her stardom that thrilled the audience at the Fox, however, but the experience of musical insight and charisma operating at the highest level. The Schumann Violin Concerto has long been regarded as the embarrassing uncle at the Thanksgiving table of the violin repertoire. Though Schumann is one of the greatest composers, he suffered in the final years of his tragically short life (1810-1856) from paranoid schizophrenia.

A product of 1853, the violin concerto was regarded at the time as indicative of the composer’s mental illness and was withheld from publication for 80 years. Through the decades, it has entered the repertory and frustrated violinists who have attempted to fit it into the mold left by Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

Midori has the wisdom not to force the work into any mold but to see it for what it is: a radical rethinking of the European instrumental concerto in which soloist and orchestra compete and collaborate in the development of musical themes. When judged by this standard, the Schumann Concerto is a dreadful failure filled with discontinuities and inconsistencies.

As revealed in Midori’s interpretation, however, the orchestra and soloist represent the divergent elements in Schumann’s personality, which he named Florestan (cheerful, vigorous, outgoing) and Eusebius (quiet, inward, contemplative). The brusque, even brutal statements by the orchestra were met with responses from Midori that were intimate, fantastical and imaginative.

She showed the most amazing command of tempo, allowing her to make time appear to stand still without losing the beat. As if by magic, the work’s “defects” made perfect sense, and Midori’s mastery of the concerto’s technical demands was so absolute one forgot it was the sound of horsehair on a string and not a heart and mind searching for beauty.

Collaborating with a soloist of this caliber in an interpretation this subtle is no easy task, but Hekmatpanah and his orchestra, comprised of students and community musicians, played their part expertly. This was all the more remarkable considering the Schumann Concerto was preceded by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 1 in G minor, Op. 13, titled “Winter Dreams.”

Seamless, organic development is no more an attribute of this symphony than it is of the Schumann Concerto, but what Tchaikovsky offers instead is a ceaseless wellspring of enchanting melody and an ear for instrumental color that is second to none.

The “Winter Dreams” (or “Reveries”) symphony is liberally sprinkled with opportunities to shine for every instrument in the orchestra. The mournful and echt Russian lament that begins the second movement is intoned by the winds before being taken up by the whole orchestra.

It would be difficult to imagine a more sensitive, affecting rendition than that delivered by oboist Katie Hadley Morgan dueted by bassoon David Taylor. The symphony ends in a blaze of Tchaikovskian glory, which meant many demands were placed on the brass. If one closed one’s eyes, the trumpets, under Kyle Jenkins, and trombones, led by Luke Kenneally, might have as well been seated in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, as on the stage of the Fox.

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