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Review: Inon Barnatan and James Lowe restore link with Russian culture via Spokane Symphony

UPDATED: Sun., April 24, 2022

By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

Vladimir Putin’s horrific assault on Ukraine has inflicted unpardonable losses on that country and, quite understandably, has inclined the rest of the world to turn away from all things Russian, including the precious musical heritage that has brightened and enriched so many lives.

In part to defend against this, James Lowe, music director of the Spokane Symphony, elected to carry on with plans Saturday night and Sunday afternoon to conclude the current season of Masterworks concerts with an evening of Russian music of the 19th century, though the title of the program was changed from “Russian Nights” to “1001 Nights.”

As Lowe pointed out from the stage at Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Saturday evening, British audiences in 1940 listened to the music of Beethoven and Brahms while German bombs rained on London. As though to remind of the importance of Russian music, Lowe chose three works that define “classical music” to many people.

The three pieces have introduced millions to a lifetime of joy in listening to and performing such music in homes and concert halls: the “Polovtsian Dances” (1890) from “Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor Op. 23 (1888) and the orchestral suite “Scheherazade” (1888) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Featured as soloist in the concerto was Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, who was introduced in 2016 to Spokane audiences in performances of another Russian staple of the repertoire, Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 2. Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” was ubiquitous on concert programs throughout the first half of the 20th century and provided the melodic content of the Broadway show “Kismet” in 1953.

As if to dismiss fears that he might be inclined to rest on the music’s laurels, Lowe jolted the audience by opening the piece at a cracking pace, thus providing the first opportunity to enjoy the terrific virtuosity and panache that the orchestra displayed throughout the evening.

The orchestra was joined in the Borodin by the Spokane Symphony Chorale, whose director, Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, was aware that they were performing not a piece of abstract music, but excerpts taken from a dramatic stage work.

Consequently, the chorale, as they always do, contributed not only beauty of tone and crystal-clear articulation of the Russian text, but also dramatic specificity to the performance, allowing the audience to envision the exotic spectacle of medieval (Ukrainian) warriors held captive by marauding hordes.

Any pianist taking up the gauntlet of the Tchaikovsky Concerto must be able not only to negotiate its notorious technical challenges, but also to overcome the barrier that its familiarity poses to establishing genuine engagement with an audience. Barnatan accomplished this to a degree that will leave a permanent imprint on everyone who heard his performance.

Not since Daniil Trifonov electrified Spokane audiences in 2012 has a soloist made such an impression as Barnatan did. He did this not through technique alone, though I can imagine Vladimir Horowitz asking him for tips on playing octaves. He did it also by approaching the piece as a collaborative exploration of an inspired score rather than a competition for dominance with the orchestra.

A member of the audience remarked on how unusual it was to see a soloist in this concerto constantly turning his gaze into the orchestra, locking eyes with a player or section to make sure they were perfectly synchronized. This is the behavior of a chamber music player, not a concerto soloist, but Barnatan views the Tchaikovsky Concerto not as a steeplechase, but as an intellectually and emotionally coherent whole.

And as a carefully planned journey through the soul of an exceptionally skilled and sensitive observer of the human condition. He and Lowe guided that journey, and the exultancy that brought the audience to its feet, not once but twice, showed that everyone had arrived at the destination together.

Before beginning the second half of the program with “Scheherazade,” Lowe turned to the audience to explain the presence in the orchestra of an empty chair adorned by a vase of flowers. That chair was occupied for 32 years by the orchestra’s principal flute, Bruce Bodden, who had succumbed to cancer one month before the concert.

Lowe dedicated this performance to Bodden, one of the most loved and admired members of Spokane’s arts community, whom he described as “funny, naughty and outrageously musical.” What followed was a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s thrice-familiar masterpiece as fresh and alive with a sense of discovery as if the ink were still wet on the page.

There were all the colors and thrilling effects that one hopes for in a performance of “Scheherazade,” but also elements of tenderness and delicacy that are rarely encountered there. It seemed that Lowe had expanded the emotional “dynamic range” of the music to embrace a broader range of human feeling.

This broader range could be found also in the many instrumental solo passages Rimsky sprinkled liberally throughout the work. The contributions of principal oboe Keith Thomas, principal cello John Marshall and principal bassoon Lynn Feller-Marshall were particularly notable.

Especially outstanding was the contribution of concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, whose assumption of the role of the narrator, Scheherazade herself, embraced all the sensuous sweetness one expected, but also the forcefulness in keeping with a woman wily and determined enough to fend off a death sentence for 1,001 nights.

Lowe concluded this celebration of Russian musical heritage with a piece that did not appear on the program: “Prayer for Ukraine” (2014), an ineffably touching work performed by a small string orchestra by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. Any sense of uneasiness one might have felt was resolved by this sensitive gesture.

Under Lowe, it seems the orchestra always carries something in reserve. Whatever is demanded to make the most of a passage of music – be it an increase in speed, in clarity, in volume – it is always there. It was thus with great acclaim that the audience reacted to the announcement that Lowe’s contract with the Spokane Symphony has been extended through 2025, allowing him to continue sharing his singular qualities with the orchestra and the city of Spokane.

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