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Spokane Symphony review: Leonard Slatkin conducted a visual and auditory masterpiece

Jan. 22, 2023 Updated Sun., Jan. 22, 2023 at 8:30 p.m.

Leonard Slatkin  (Li lewei)
Leonard Slatkin (Li lewei)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

Unless they had attended other performances led by Leonard Slatkin, ticketholders at this weekend’s concerts by the Spokane Symphony received something more for the price of admission than they expected, something that they should, and probably will always remember.

They expected, and certainly received, very fine performances of three works for orchestra: “Double Play,” by Cindy McTee, “Francesca da Rimini,” by Piotr Tchaikovsky and the Symphony No. 1 in C minor of Johannes Brahms. What they could not have expected was an emotional, and even visual journey of such variety, intensity and breadth.

The subject of music’s visual dimension arose several times in the talks and readings Slatkin gave in the days preceding the concerts. And here, one must express the gratitude felt by many in our community for the extraordinary effort put forth by Jeff vom Saal, executive director, and his staff at the Spokane Symphony in creating such opportunities for our community to become acquainted with a musician of Slatkin’s stature and experience. Especially considering the number of young people and students in attendance at his talks, there can be no doubt that his visit will result in changes here of an extent that we can only imagine.

Drawing on his memories of growing up in Los Angeles as the child of Felix Slatkin and Eleanor Aller, who, apart from their individual accomplishments as musicians of international renown, were principle players in the orchestras of Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros. studios, Slatkin explored the ways in which music can evoke and intensify the emotional impact of visual imagery. In Saturday’s pre-concert lecture, he encouraged the audience to set the technical aspects of that evening’s program aside and allow the images it evoked to take hold of their hearts and minds.

That proved easy to do in the case of “Double Play” (2010), a piece for large orchestra, augmented by an eye-popping variety of exotic percussion. “Double Play” is complex, both technically and emotionally, but the impression it makes on an audience is vivid and clear, thanks in large measure to the use by composer Cindy McTee, who is married to Slatkin, of motifs and harmonies familiar from their use in film music of the postwar period, specifically in the genre of film noir.

The atmosphere of anxiety and heightened emotionalism that courses through these films permeates “Double Play,” which seems to be bathed in the same harsh lighting and sinister shadows as fell on the faces of Robert Mitchum, Dana Andrews and Barbara Stanwyck. Whether every member of the audience carried these images in memory, the impression of a coherent narrative of pictorial clarity was inescapable.

Such vivid pictorialism was certainly Tchaikovsky’s goal in composing a tone poem inspired by the story of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, the tale from Dante’s Comedia most often chosen by Romantic artists for visual illustration. Little wonder that it appealed to Tchaikovsky, whose extraordinary abilities at musical pictorialism gave us such works as his three deathless ballets, the “Overture 1812” and a symphony subtitled “Winter Dreams.” Dante’s images of the souls of two illicit lovers, caught up for eternity in a cyclone that keeps them always close but never touching, is captured by Tchaikovsky in a vivid musical narrative that employs the full resources of the symphony orchestra: now turbulent, now brooding, always passionate.

At no point in Tchaikovsky’s technically and interpretively demanding work was there any doubt of Slatkin’s complete and utter mastery. Even to those who do not make a hobby of analyzing the technique of various conductors, the meticulous clarity with which he conveyed the instructions of the score to the orchestra was a source of wonder. Every dynamic marking, every hint of phrasing and expression, every shift in balance somehow found its way to one of the conductor’s fingers, shoulders, eyes or earlobes in a way that made clear to the players exactly what they should do.

This is significant for two reasons. First, it shows to both the audience and the orchestra that they are experiencing a completely finished interpretation, in which every detail has been considered in light of a thorough understanding of the composer’s intentions and of the overall structure of the piece. Second, it relieves the members of the orchestra of all uncertainty, allowing them to play to the top of their abilities.

Perhaps for that reason, the orchestra played superbly throughout the program, producing sounds of great beauty and power while following every subtlety of Slatkin’s interpretation, most memorably in the performance of Brahms’ First Symphony that filled the second half of the program.

The piece famously begins with heavy beats on the timpani, which underlie an aching, chromatic passage in the strings and winds. Since Toscanini, conductors have taken those beats as a sign that Brahms wished them to impart an urgent, insistent quality to the entire work, as though Brahms was determined to outdo Beethoven. In Slatkin’s hands, however, the beat is not imposed from without, as by a hidden metronome, but seems to spring from the natural rhythm of the work’s underlying emotional narrative.

As a result, passages that can seem mere connective tissue emerged as things of beauty in their own right, while crucial passages stood out with heart-stopping effect. One such passage was Chip Phillips’ clarinet solo in the second movement, which he delivered with such intense beauty of tone and subtlety of expression that time seemed to stand still. In the same movement, it was hard to imagine how the dialogue between Mateusz Wolski’s violin and Charles Karschney’s horn could have been played to more poignant effect.

Throughout its performance of the Brahms symphony, the orchestra played at a level that brought to mind a remark made by Slatkin at the Museum of Arts and Culture that he had long ago fastened on the Philadelphia Orchestra as representing the ideal of orchestral sound. Had he managed to capture some of that magic and bring it with him to Spokane? During the 1950s and 60s, LP releases by the Philadelphia Orchestra were emblazoned, immodestly, but not inaccurately, with the slogan, “The World’s Greatest Orchestra.”

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