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Departing Spokane Symphony conductor Eckart Preu leaves an exceptional legacy

Monday May 6, 2019 • Reviews • Spokesman Review

By Larry Lapidus
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Richard Strauss, Eine Alpensymphonie (Alpine Symphony) Op. 64. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Deutsche Grammophon

Had this weekend’s concerts by the Spokane Symphony been planned as an audition by Eckart Preu for the position of principal conductor and music director of the orchestra, they could not have been more successful.

We had already heard five outstanding candidates earlier in the season: Morihiko Nakahara, James Lowe, Rei Hotoda, Arthur Arnold and Jayce Ogren. Every one of them exhibited extraordinary qualities that alerted us to the possibilities for new growth that are ahead for Spokane and its orchestra, and so might the concerts led this weekend by Preu, were it not for one big difference: The fact that these concerts were the last to be led by Preu as principal conductor of the Spokane Symphony, a position he has held for 15 years.

Each piece on the program, viewed in this very different light, became for everyone in the hall an emblem of the talents and skills that have allowed both Preu and the orchestra to achieve such a high level or artistry, and to grace our lives with so much power, beauty and pleasure.

Preu’s predilections as a program builder were evident in his choice of Joseph Boulogne’s (1745-1799) “Overture to L’amant anonyme” to open the program: an unknown piece by an obscure composer that not only proved delightful, but showed us all that Haydn and Mozart were not the only composers active in Europe in the second half of the 18th century.

The piece, while meeting all the standards of balance, clarity and wit typical of the period, displays a unique and engaging voice, plainly different from those of his mighty contemporaries.

It is only the most recent of many works that Preu has found to make us reexamine our assumptions about periods and styles of music that we thought we had all figured out and comfortably pigeonholed. We retreat to pigeonholes not to explore, but to keep from growing.

Preu’s insistence that we remain open to what is new and unfamiliar led him include contemporary works in almost every program, works like Zivkovic’s “Concerto of the Mad Queen” (2000), a concerto for an array of percussion in which the soloist was the Serbian composer himself, Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic, a former teacher and longtime friend of Preu.

Zivkovic visited us once before, in 2012, performing his “Concerto No. 2 for Marimba and Orchestra” with the same blend of eye-popping virtuosity, dynamism and sensitivity we saw on Saturday night. Zivkovic is not only one of the most exciting and charismatic performers currently before the public, but a composer of great resource, able to move from the structured cacophony which opens “Concerto of the Mad Queen” to the poignant lyricism and delicacy of the central section, and finally to the driving dynamism of the concluding movement.

Through all this welter of new sounds and new ideas, Preu and the orchestra sustained the same calm focus and perfection of ensemble they would show in a performance of “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”

The crowning achievement of the night, and a fitting emblem of the remarkable attainments of Preu as musician and evangelist of art, was a performance of Richard Strauss’ final contribution as innovator and master of the tone poem, his “Alpine Symphony” of 1915. It is a mammoth work, as much in its length and complexity as in its instrumental requirements, which place exhausting demands on virtually every player.

The work means to portray with the exactitude of an engraver, a 24-hour hike to the summit of an Alpine mountain and back down again. Strauss, who once bragged of his ability to describe a teaspoon in music, lavishes his teeming imagination and jeweler’s eye on every one of the work’s 22 sections, thus posing a challenge to every conductor attempting to essay the piece: How to do justice to its wealth of detail without losing sight of its larger design and value as a work of art, which is to make us experience the exaltation and transcendence that comes from a union with nature.

And here we come to Preu’s most treasurable gift as an artist and the bar he set highest for his successor: His ability always to maintain a sense of final destination, to give every phrase a chance to breathe while never allowing it to impede our exploration of what the whole piece can contribute to our own quest for a better life.

As we think back over the years of his tenure, the greatest moments (one thinks, for example, of an austere Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony, a kaleidoscopic Mahler Third Symphony, and a tragic and revelatory Brahms Fourth) it is never the brilliant moment that sticks in the memory, but rather the sense that something happened at that performance that made a lasting mark, that fulfilled the demand that for the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was laid down by all authentic works of art: “You must change your life.”

 

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