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Concert review: Nakahara leads symphony in energetic, precise program

Sunday Oct 8, 2017 • Reviews • Spokesman Review

By Larry Lapidus

Recommended recordings

Like what you heard at the Spokane Symphony this weekend, or want to know what you missed? Music critic Larry Lapidus has compiled a list of recommended recordings of the works on the symphony’s program.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra No 4 Op. 58. Leon Fleisher, piano, Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by George Szell. Sony.

Antonin Dvorak, Symphony in D major Op. 60. London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Istvan Kertesz. Decca.

Music lovers in Spokane this month have the opportunity of hearing two outstanding pianists as guests of the Spokane Symphony. This weekend at the Fox, we heard Ran Dank and the orchestra play a concerto by Beethoven. In two weeks, Conrad Tao returns to Spokane. Four years ago, he channeled Hercules by performing all five piano concertos of Beethoven in back to back concerts, and played every one brilliantly.

Although limited to performing merely one Beethoven concerto this weekend, No. 4 in G major Op. 58, Dank exhibited such musicianship and profound communication that those who heard him are already looking forward to his return.

Adding to the pleasure of audiences was one of the too-infrequent appearances here of resident conductor Morihiko Nakahara, who once again demonstrated his ability to make the orchestra speak with a voice unique to him. It is a darker tone, pitched at a point in the spectrum that allots more bandwidth to low strings and brass. Playing of this character is ideally suited to music of Antonin Dvorak. We have already had a chance to hear Nakahara’s interpretations of Dvorak’s last three symphonies, his most famous. In these concerts, he added the less celebrated Symphony No. 6 in D major Op. 60, in which this orchestra once again demonstrated the beauty, accuracy and brilliance of its playing.

These qualities were no less evident in the first piece on the program, “Banitza Groove!” by the Japanese born, English-trained composer Dai Fujikara, born in 1977. Banitza, we are told, is a sort of Bulgarian pastry, and Bulgarian rhythms animate “Banitza Groove!” from its opening measures, ensuring that the music remains piquant and lively, even with the introduction of more lyrical, sometimes mournful elements. Although brief, it offers more stimulation and delight than some pieces many times its length.

Fujikara achieves such compression by different means: sometimes by superimposing a slow-moving, lyrical element upon a lively, spiky element; sometimes by breaking sections of the orchestra into sub-sections which perform different material simultaneously. At one point, one could count four different ideas being played simultaneously by the violins alone. Still, the effect was never one of pointless activity or content overload. The piece speaks with a single voice, and provides great pleasure through the inventive deployment of sound. The orchestra’s disciplined mastery led the audience through this unfamiliar work, and Nakahara’s supremely confident conducting conveyed the composer’s clear and consistent sense of purpose.

One might think that conveying this clarity of purpose would be much easier with a concerto written in 1806 than with a complex piece in a modern idiom. But not so, at least in the case of Beethoven’s G major Piano Concerto; which, as Artur Schnabel might say, has persistently proved to be better than it can be performed. In this work, Beethoven always appears to be in complete control of his material, presenting it with formal clarity and directness. What, then, does it mean? We ask this question of a great masterpiece in the same way we ask it of life itself, and with the same chance of receiving a satisfactory answer. It carries all the elements we encounter in life: hope and despair, passion and pathos, defeat and victory, combined in the same masterful and mysterious way they are handed to us in reality.

The most a performer can hope for in rendering a work of this order is to present it as accurately and as sensitively as he can, so that the listener can wonder at its beauty and richness, and feel moved to find his or her own meaning within it. Dank and Nakahara applied all their discipline and insight, and succeeded in leading at least one listener to a deeper understanding of this great work than he had been able to achieve in many years of trying.

The soloist’s success was based on his complete mastery of the finest details of the score, combined with a technique that allows him to transform those details into sound. He sits still at the keyboard. No superfluous movement interferes with his control over the weight applied to each note. Allied with his capacity to focus attentively on every phrase, Dank’s superb mechanical precision allows him to convey the delicate changes in volume and color that reside only in the human voice.

In none of Beethoven’s other four piano concertos are the orchestra and soloist asked to collaborate so precisely. The attentiveness of Nakahara and his musicians was palpable, as in the duets and trios among the woodwinds and the piano in the first movement, and in the gradual submission of the growling low strings to the soft pleadings of the piano in the second movement. Exposure to musicianship of this caliber is a source of joy.

In response to the audience’s shouts of “Bravo!” after the concerto, Dank returned to play an encore: Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G major Op. 126, from a much later stage of the composer’s life. Dank’s choice of this technically easy but interpretively challenging work simply reaffirmed his credentials as a musician whose lofty achievements are placed at the service of even loftier goals.

It must be admitted that the portion of the program following the intermission, consisting entirely of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6, did not continue at the same elevated level, nor should it have: time spent in the stratosphere must be followed by a return to earth. The Dvorak symphony displays the same gifts of compelling melody and vibrant orchestral color one encounters in his greatest works: his last three symphonies, his Concerto for Cello, and his incomparable Quintet for Piano and Strings. What it lacks is the structural and expressive coherence of these later works. Nevertheless, it brims with infectious tunes and compelling rhythms, which should merit the piece greater exposure than it receives.

Morihiko led the Spokane Symphony through a performance that gathered strength as it went. By the time they were ready to launch the fourth and final movement, the orchestra had already exhibited sumptuous string tone; warm, agile playing by the horns; and, perhaps most notable, the sort of piquant playing by the winds that distinguishes the great orchestras of the Czecho-Slovak and Bohemian regions. All of this is called for again the in last movement at even greater speed and power. Amazingly, the orchestra had enough and more in their budget to satisfy the demands Dvorak placed on it. A whirlwind section of notes near the end of the piece, played at a pace that had to be heard to be believed, concluded the performance at a high pitch of exhilaration. In acknowledging the foot-stamping applause of the audience, Nakahara not only called on individual players and sections of the orchestra to stand, but insisted on bounding around the stage to give salutes and high-fives to every section. These are not the actions of a person who works only to build a résumé. It is the behavior of a man who lives through and for music.

 

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