Spokane-based pianist Archie Chen has performed many times and on different stages with the Spokane Symphony. But, to him, this weekend’s performance will be especially meaningful.
Last August, he spent 10 days in the ICU recovering from COVID-19.
“That time gave me a chance to look back at my life and gain a little bit of a different perspective,” he said. “After having that near-death experience … every note that I produce has more value.
“It’s been a long journey getting back into health, and I’m just so happy that I can be performing in front of the live audience again.”
This weekend’s concert, “Masterworks 6: The Genesis of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra,” will feature Chen playing Robert Schumann’s “Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54.”
And, drawing from records of the symphony’s earliest years, the program will also include Antonin Dvořák’s eighth symphony, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Overture from Iphigenie in Aulis” and George Frederick McKay’s “Suite on Fiddler’s Themes.”
“I wanted to start with the Gluck because these were the first notes that the orchestra ever played in the history of the symphony,” music director James Lowe said.
Had he not been scouring old programs, Lowe admitted that he might not have ever thought to program the McKay piece. McKay grew up “just down the road” from Spokane and attended high school here.
“It’s just so exciting to come across a composer with such a deep link to our city,” Lowe said.
At first, Lowe couldn’t find a recording of the piece. But after a little more digging, he managed to track down the composer’s son in Seattle, and through him, “a whole treasure trove of music that is that has not been recorded.”
“I think programming tastes change over the years … and this is all the kind of music they were listening to 76 years ago … that was the idea behind the whole program.”
While Lowe might not have chosen the Gluck and McKay pieces on his own, the Schumann concerto and the Dvořák symphony were already on his radar. But he hadn’t thought to pair them until another old program caught his eye.
“You can really see what Harold Paul Whelan was thinking when he put that together – I think it’s a really elegant combination,” Lowe said, explaining how the second movements of both pieces share several rhythmic elements among other similarities.
Bringing in Chen for the Schumann piano concerto seemed an obvious choice, Lowe said.
“Celebrating the anniversary of the orchestra and its program – it’s nice to use somebody who’s local and, of course, who’s also a really fantastic artist,” Lowe said.
Chen last performed with the symphony during a music festival in Sandpoint. But his first appearance was nearly 30 years ago when, at just 15, he won the Musicfest Northwest Young Artist Award. Musicfest Northwest, with which Chen has remained affiliated in various capacities over the years, is also celebrating its 76th anniversary.
The Schumann concerto has been in Chen’s repertoire for decades, but it’s been a while since he’s had the chance to perform it with an orchestra.
“It’s been great to study it again from a fresh perspective,” he said. “And utilizing the tools and research abilities that I’ve garnered throughout my academic career, as well.”
Schumann’s music documented and paralleled his life and relationships, most notably his relationship with the woman who would become his wife.
“One of the key figures in his life, of course, was Clara,” Chen said. Schumann’s music documents his pursuit of her, the ups and downs of that courtship. This particular concerto was composed during their marriage.
“They were happy and in love, and I suppose the concerto itself has kind of an encrypted message,” he said. “It’s a musical narrative of his life and the people he loved.”
Whatever the message was, Clara Schumann must have understood as, Chen said, the piece owes much of its prominence directly to her.
“When Schumann passed away, Clara continued performing it hundreds of times around Europe, and not just this concerto, but all of his repertoire,” Chen said.
“She was a steadfast promoter of his music. Without her performance and virtuosic playing, Schumann’s music would never have been heard throughout Europe.”
For more information, call the box office at (509) 624-1200 and visit foxtheaterspokane.org. A pre-concert talk will begin one hour before each concert.