Following an interruption due to COVID-19, music director James Lowe was back in town to lead the Spokane Symphony in a pair of concerts Saturday and Sunday – “Spokane Symphony Masterworks 5: Pictured Within” – at Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox comprising a cluster of celebrations. To honor Black History Month, two works by Black composers appeared on the program: the suite “Wood Notes” (1948), by distinguished African American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) and “Danse Nègre” (1897) by the astoundingly gifted English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912).
And Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 (1878) gave listeners a chance to celebrate symphony concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, who appeared as soloist, while the program’s concluding work, Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” of 1898, does honor to England. Both works by Black composers received performances of high technical finish and were delivered with real panache.
“Wood Notes” is made up of four brief works suggested by the poetry of Joseph Mitchell Pilcher, the one-time poet laureate of Alabama. What struck the ear most strongly in these performances was Still’s unerring sense of matching orchestral colors with the sweet and sensuous turns of the music’s melodic content. The interplay of strings and woodwinds, the subtle use of harp and vibraphone, all conveyed a sense of lively awareness and delight in the natural world while never drawing attention to the composer’s ingenuity.
The explosive, witty and unpredictable style of Coleridge-Taylor’s “Danse Nègre” stood in stark contrast to Still’s polished refinement. Scarcely a bar of “Danse Nègre” concludes in the way its opening leads one to expect. Sudden modulations, buoyant, impudent turns in the melodic flow of the piece, are combined with great rhythmic subtlety and sophistication in a way that stamps Coleridge-Taylor as a composer of authentic genius.
The demands placed on the Spokane Symphony even by this brief composition are considerable, yet Lowe and his orchestra brought it off with the assurance and commitment one would expect in the performance of a masterpiece they had known since childhood.
Departing from the view of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto stamped upon it in the last century by Jascha Heifetz, Wolski considers the work as a thing of great beauty and variety rather than a ceaseless storm of emotion centered on the ego of the performer. This is not to deny Wolski’s achievement in surmounting the technical challenges of Tchaikovsky’s concerto, which are as daunting as anything in the repertoire.
The sheer physical stamina required to play it was exhausting for the audience to behold, though it seemed to leave Wolski unphased. Still, it was his willingness to bend to the character of the music, rather than force it into his mold, that was most impressive, as it opened up imaginative vistas for the first time even for the, shall we say, mature listener who had kept the piece as a constant companion since childhood.
With the admirable support of his colleagues, Wolski revealed deep connections between the concerto and works by Tchaikovsky in other genres, such as ballet and opera. “Swan Lake” contains such an important part for violin that it was once recorded by Yehudi Menuhin.
Under Wolski’s fingers, the scenic, balletic quality of the music became unmistakable and undeniable. At the same time, his gentle, softly tinted performance of the Canzonetta second movement brought immediately to mind Tatiana’s Letter Scene in the opera “Eugene Onegin,” composed by Tchaikovsky almost simultaneously with the Violin Concerto.
The variety, color and insight Wolski brought to this music caused the audience not only to applaud after the first movement, but also to rise spontaneously to their feet in recognition of what he had achieved.
In expressing the power and variety of his interpretation, Wolski had the benefit of the magnificent Joseph Curtin violin. The variety of color, beauty of tone and dynamic range made possible by this instrument allowed the audience to hear Wolski’s voice as we had never heard it before. One hopes that his access to this instrument becomes permanent.
Taking up Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” must feel like Atlas hoisting the world on his shoulders. As we have seen him do in the past with works of comparable stature by Beethoven and Brahms, Lowe surmounted this challenge and triumphed by employing his mastery of a conductor’s most basic tools: control of tempo and dynamics and calibration of instrumental balance.
There are 15 sections of “Enigma Variations,” a statement of Elgar’s original theme, followed by 14 variations of sometimes strikingly different character. Each variation is so delightful, it is not surprising that many conductors are content with giving the most effective rendition of each one in sequence and calling it good.
Not Lowe, who managed transitions between the sections with such minute care, while shifting orchestral color with equally meticulous attention, that he was able to reveal the psychological and compositional integrity of the work as an organic whole. The result was an emotional experience of overwhelming force, scarcely suggested by “reference recordings” by some of the starriest conductors and ensembles of the past 90 years.
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