For the fifth in its Masterworks Series of concerts, the Spokane Symphony chose Saturday evening to join much of the rest of the world in celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose works have for much of that time formed the cornerstone of the symphonic repertoire.
Chosen from only the best-known and most-loved chips from that cornerstone, the program at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox consisted of the Overture to Goethe’s play “Egmont” (1810), the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major Op. 61 (1806) and the Symphony No. 7 in A major Op. 92 (1812). Leading the Spokane Symphony was guest conductor Mark Russell Smith.
Soloist in the concerto was Augustin Hadelich, making his second appearance with the orchestra after an acclaimed performance in 2011 of the Dvorak Violin Concerto under Eckart Preu. The decision to program three of the most popular works by one of the world’s most popular composers might provide reassurance to the audience, but it also runs the risk of alienating them if the performances fail to offer anything beyond the ordinary.
Smith’s galvanizing direction, Hadelich’s thrilling virtuosity, along with playing from the orchestra that was inspired, quickly laid any such fears to rest. One could tell that something different was in store even before the music began by observing changes in the customary seating plan of the orchestra.
The lower strings were gathered in the midst of the orchestra with their instruments facing the audience and flanked by the separate sections of first and second violins, which are normally seated next to one another. The timpani also were moved to more exactly balance the double basses.
These acoustical adjustments reflected the quality of sound that Smith sought and obtained from the orchestra: a quality of warm, robust intensity reminiscent of the Chicago Symphony during its glory years under Sir George Solti. Even in the softest passages, such as the one which begins the Egmont Overture, Smith asked for a fullness of sound, which he carefully molded into long phrases of growing urgency until the pent-up tension was released in an explosion of joy.
Smith is exceptionally gifted in his ability to delineate and dramatize this pattern of tension and release as a fundamental element in Beethoven’s music, and the orchestra responded with a volume and brilliance of sound that appeared to have no limit. Smith found an ideal partner in his pursuit of emotional intensity in Hadelich, whose rendition of the Violin Concerto was of such freshness and spontaneity as to suggest he was encountering the music for the first time.
In fact, he has known it since he was 8 years old and has performed it in public more than 100 times. He says, as does Itzhak Perlman, that he never plays the piece without discovering something new. Such is the nature of a true artist. So excited was the audience with his and Smith’s traversal of the first movement that they burst into applause; not a polite clapping, but an openhearted standing ovation.
Responding to the ovation that followed the finale of the concerto, Hadelich offered an encore that featured good old-fashioned violinist wizardry. The audience sat in growing amazement as he played the Recuerdos de la Alhambra, composed in 1896 by Francisco Tárrega as a next-to-impossible piece for solo guitar, and arranged as an impossible piece for solo violin requiring control over the bow that is beyond dreaming. I heard it, and I still don’t believe it.
Everything in the first half of the program pointed toward a memorable performance of the Seventh Symphony in the second half; Smith and the orchestra did not disappoint. Other Beethoven symphonies trace a course from confusion or uncertainty to triumph. The Seventh, however, begins in triumph and ends in ecstasy.
Beethoven displays himself here as the artist rampant completely in control of his unsurpassed gifts of melody, harmony and counterpoint, able to derive a work of Shakespearean depth and complexity from a single note: the note “E,” which is repeated 61 times at one point in the first movement before becoming the springboard of all that follows.
Everything that Smith asked of the orchestra, they delivered: subtlety of accent, clarity of articulation and, especially, color and volume of sound. The final movement was taken at a speed which, though indicated in Beethoven’s manuscript, was thought for many years to be unplayable by a modern orchestra.
Far from showing signs of exhaustion, the playing of the Spokane Symphony, despite the demands placed on it, seemed to grow in strength right up to the final two triplets, which were performed with absolute precision. If the audience could have swept both orchestra and conductor into their arms, they would have. A standing ovation had to suffice.
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