Any competent conductor can put together a concert celebrating the music of Beethoven almost without thinking: Start with one of the master’s rousing overtures. Follow it by inviting an appealing soloist to perform one of the five piano concertos. After intermission, wrap things up with an accurate traversal of one of the popular symphonies; the Third, “Eroica,” is sure to send the audience home smiling.
At Spokane Symphony’s Saturday concert, music director James Lowe did not stop at providing listeners with what they already like and know. By titling the concert “Beethoven’s Soul,” and exploring the psychological and spiritual forces that motivated the German composer, Lowe heightened awareness not only of the workings of Beethoven’s soul, but also of our own.
Lowe achieved this first by employing brilliantly innovative programming. The first half of the program was made up of a mixture of documents and musical works. All but one employed the communicative power of the human voice.
The charismatic presence of bass-baritone vocalist Derrick Parker intensified the auditory impact of two letters written by Beethoven that were discovered after his death in 1827: the “Heiligenstadt Testament” and a letter to an anonymous “Immortal Beloved.” In both, Beethoven may have been suffering inwardly from terror at his encroaching deafness or the pains of unfulfilled love .
Lowe and the orchestra provided a convincing portrait of this torment by performing “Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament,” a purely orchestral work written in 2008 by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin.
By concluding a work filled with jarring dissonance with a fragile, tender melody for the horn, Shchedrin creates an underlying narrative that was repeated throughout the concert in which doubt, fear and anxiety are transformed into hope, and even into joy, through the medium of art.
This same narrative underlies two of Beethoven’s compositions for chorus and orchestra that also appeared on the program: “Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage)” and “Elegischer Gesang (Elegiac Song).”
Lowe availed himself of the treasured resource that is the Spokane Symphony Chorale – guided by director Kristine Ploeger-Hekmatpanah – which executed to perfection the conductor’s unwavering attention to the most minute details of expression. Their precise articulation of German lyrics revealed countless beauties, and their management of Lowe’s extremely refined dynamic nuances was breathtaking.
With the creation of “An Die Ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) Op. 98,” Beethoven revitalizes the “darkness to light” paradigm through a cycle of six poems that explore the dilemma of a lover’s tragically and hopelessly separated from the object of his love.
The pleasure of hearing Felix Weingartner’s masterful transcription of Beethoven’s piano accompaniment was more than matched by the lovely voice and exquisite interpretation of tenor William Ferguson.
Any thought of the limitations that cause Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major Op. 60” to be ranked below his others was blown away by the astonishing freshness and vitality of Lowe’s interpretation and the virtuosity with which the orchestra converted it into sound.
From the tentative, harmonically ambiguous “tiptoeing” of its opening to the manic, headlong rush of its conclusion, Beethoven’s “Fourth” held its audience enthralled in its inexhaustible wellspring of creativity.
Unanimity of attack, clarity of articulation, rhythmic thrust and control of tempo – all the components of truly great orchestral playing – never lapsed and never failed to reveal new resources of expression, even, and perhaps especially, to the ears of those who thought we knew it backward.
Music lovers in Spokane have hoped that the new head of their beloved orchestra might turn out to be a great conductor. He has. Now what do we do? The answer is in the music.
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