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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Review: Musical choices make for a memorable Spokane Symphony concert

Spokane Symphony’s concertmaster Mateusz Wolski performed Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor during this weekend's Masterworks performances.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

Admittedly, the size of the audience at Saturday night’s performance by the Spokane Symphony in the second in this season’s series of Masterworks Concerts did not match the one that packed the hall to see and hear Yo-Yo Ma last month. Those who were there were treated to performances in interpretive insight, imaginative conception and technical brilliance that were the equal of anything we have heard in that theater.

The program comprised entirely music that had been requested by orchestra members. Trombonist Richard Strauch told the audience his choice, the Academic Festival Overture (1880) of Johannes Brahms, inspired him to pursue a career as a professional musician at a time when he contemplated quitting. The orchestra’s new third horn, Andrew Angelos, spoke out for his choice, Charles Camille Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony in C minor (1886), which provided the concert’s rousing conclusion, explaining that he had played it during his time in a youth orchestra, and that, to him, it represented the pure joy of sharing the gift of music with others, independent of professional pressures.

The most noteworthy item of the evening, the Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn (1844), was chosen by its soloist, Mateusz Wolski, who is concertmaster of the Spokane Symphony. We last heard Wolski as a soloist last season in a performance of the Violin Concerto of Samuel Barber, an evening of vernal freshness lightly tinged with melancholy. This is very often the approach taken to the Mendelssohn concerto, long considered a staple item in the repertoire of every solo violinist. This was Wolski’s first public performance as a soloist in the Mendelssohn concerto, which has allowed him to approach it with the freshness of a student, but the wisdom and technical finish of an established professional.

The result was playing that was at once thoughtful and impetuous, passionate as well as disciplined. As he explained during his pre-concert remarks, Wolski chose to emphasize the romantic elements of the piece, ones that express deep feelings and strong emotions, rather than its elements of classical poise and untroubled songfulness. From the first measures of the piece, Wolski’s full-bodied tone and scrupulous phrasing made it plain that we were not simply to be borne aloft on wings of song, but allowed to witness passionate engagement with Mendelssohn’s thrice-familiar masterpiece.

This description applied to the orchestra’s performance, every bit as much as to the soloist’s. The effect of virtually every measure resulted from an indissoluble link between soloist and orchestra. Wolski plainly relied on contributions from Julia Pyke, principal flute; Chip Phillips, principal clarinet; and Keith Thomas, principal oboe, as well as the alert and vigorous support of his colleagues in the violin sections to amplify the emotions he expressed in his own playing, and sometimes to provide tints and complexity.

As an opening to the program, Strauch’s recommendation of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture could hardly have been improved upon. Composed as a token of Brahms’ appreciation for an honorary doctorate awarded to him by the faculty of the University of Breslau, the overture was meant to gently deprecate the academic solemnity of the occasion, while celebrating the joys of being young and beginning to explore life away from home, an exploration that, in a time-honored German tradition, often involved drinking.

Conductor James Lowe’s response to the work was to invest every bar with the greatest energy possible, and to draw out the fullest, richest tone from every choir of the orchestra.

In the midst of three well-known products of 19th century Romanticism, the orchestra chose to program a contemporary work: the brief but impactful “Tuxedo: Vasco ’de’ Gama,” composed by British composer Hannah Kendall in 2020. The piece was inspired by a segment of a graphic work, “Tuxedo,” by the American street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and in its brief compass evokes the process by which colonization both damaged Native cultures and enabled new, enriched cultures . Kendall’s precise use of instrumentation, including tuned bells and harmonicas, provided a bracing contrast to the well-egged sonic resources of the romantic orchestra. Beginning with harsh and clangorous dissonances, Kendall’s work subtly sets about introducing first individual tones, then harmonizing sets of pitches that quietly resolve the dissonance into a tentative, uneasy harmony, capped by the soft tinkling of mechanical music boxes playing tunes from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and Strauss’ “From the Beautiful Blue Danube.”

With ears refreshed by Kendall’s exquisitely wrought miniature, the audience was prepared to enjoy something from the other end of the orchestral spectrum, Saint-Saens’ mighty Symphony No 3 in C minor, incorporating the use of a modern pipe organ. The recently augmented sound system of the Fox voiced an electronic organ played on this occasion by John Bodinger.

In the creation of this work, Saint-Saens brought to bear a lifetime’s experience as a composer of symphonic, operatic and chamber works, both secular and religious. He wished the piece to sum up all that he (and, in his view, anyone else) was capable of expressing in the form of a symphony. What the work lacks is the psychological and philosophic depth that was revealed to us in the Mendelssohn Concerto, and, even more strikingly, in the unforgettable performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” rendered by Lowe and the orchestra at the inaugural concert of the season.

What Saint-Saen’s symphony does deliver is a rich and exciting tapestry of sound woven by a master, which builds from a few quiet, fragmentary chords to a stirring conclusion featuring blazing trumpets, braying horns, and thundering tympani – more than enough to bring the audience to its feet cheering even louder than the roar of the organ.

The Spokane Symphony Orchestra, reviewed on Saturday, Oct. 7 at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. For tickets or more information, visit