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Morihiko Nakahara leads the Spokane Symphony in a triumphant survey of American music

Tuesday Mar 3, 2020 • Reviews • Spokesman Review

By Larry Lapidus
Review

The Spokane Symphony, with resident conductor Morihiko Nakahara, was reviewed Saturday night at Martin Woldson Theater the Fox.

Larry Lapidus recommends:

George Gershwin, “An American in Paris.” New York Philharmonic, Michael Tilson-Thomas, conductor. Sony

Aaron Copland, “Clarinet Concerto.” Stanley Drucker, clarinet, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conductor. DG

Leonard Bernstein, “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs.” Benny Goodman, clarinet, Columbia Jazz Combo, Leonard Bernstein, conductor. Sony

Aaron Copland, “Appalachian Spring.” San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson-Thomas, conductor. Sony

How fortunate Spokane is not only to have secured the talents of James Lowe as the new principal conductor and music director of the Spokane Symphony, but also to have retained its brilliant resident conductor, Morihiko Nakahara.

Over the 15 years of Nakahara’s commitment to the orchestra, we have watched his remarkable natural gifts flower into a full-blown musicianship capable of penetrating to the heart of the most challenging scores and of leading his musicians through the thorniest passages with complete confidence.

If, after watching Nakahara segue gracefully from the lofty heights of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the sophisticated retro-pop of Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, we needed to be reminded of his breadth and versatility, nothing could have fit the bill better than last weekend’s Masterpiece 7 concert at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

It was an exhilarating survey of concert works by four of America’s greatest composers: George Gershwin (1898-1937), Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and Phillip Glass (b. 1937).

Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (1928) is so familiar, and so often plundered for commercial purposes, that we can lose sight of what a breathtakingly brilliant and innovative a tone poem it really is. Nakahara’s unfailing ear for balance and unerring sense of tempo allowed the orchestra to perform it and the audience to experience it as though newly minted.

The musicians tasked with its many solo passages were given time to impart the character they needed without impairing the terrific rhythmic energy and forward thrust of the piece. Principal trumpet Larry Jess waxed sweet and lyrical or down and dirty, as the music required, while concertmaster Mateusz Wolski could color the fabric of the piece with just the right tone of wistful melancholy.

Wolski’s duet with tubist Leonard Byrne, an audacious bit of orchestration if there ever was one, was unforgettably poetic. Gershwin included three saxophones in his orchestration, which were led in these concerts by principal Greg Yasnitsky and added an indispensable savor and piquancy to the whole performance.

There was far less a break between Gershwin’s jazz-age showpiece and Phillip Glass’s “Anniversary Concert Overture” (2012) than the years between them would lead one to expect. While there are no big tunes or danceable rhythms to be found in Glass’s “Overture,” its driving energy and constantly transforming colors strikingly evoked the frank exuberance we found in the Gershwin and anticipated what we were to encounter in works by Copland and Bernstein.

Nakahara’s supremely assured conducting made it seem as though there were nothing in the world easier than tracking the constantly changing rhythms and meters of Glass’s characteristically dense composition and gave his musicians the support they needed to play with the same confidence.

Joining Nakahara for performances of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (1948) and Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” (1955) was Stephen Williamson, principal clarinet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A classically trained clarinetist differs from most jazz clarinetists by being able not only to play with agility and expression, but also while maintaining absolute control over quality and volume of tone.

At his first entry in the Copland Concerto, Williamson’s tone seemed to take shape from the air itself, so imperceptibly did it emerge from silence. Indeed, for all the dazzling accuracy and stamina it exhibited throughout the program, Williamson’s playing was perhaps most remarkable in soft passages, in which he maintained a consistent, silvery purity of tone. This requires not only champion breath support, but also a degree of intellectual focus one encounters in only the finest performers on his instrument.

The Copland Concerto and the brief Bernstein piece employ a reduced ensemble: There are no winds or brass in the orchestra in the Concerto, while Bernstein, in order to re-create the sound of dance bands he enjoyed as a youth, employs no strings but a solo bass along with winds, brass, percussion and a taxing part for piano. The wind section included, in addition to Williamson’s exemplary clarinet, five saxophones of differing registers led again by Yasnitsky through the exhaustingly fast-paced and exacting score.

As when, at sunset, a flood of color returns to a shady landscape, the full orchestra returned to close the program with a suite from one of Copland’s greatest and most enduring works: his score to the ballet “Appalachian Spring” (1944). I cannot begin to convey the tender delicacy with which the violins of the symphony opened the piece or the explosive energy they released a few minutes later with their entry, fortissimo, suggesting the entry onstage of neighbors and townsfolk.

The playing of the string sections throughout the program showed a degree of concern for expressive details, and the skill to execute them, that define first-class ensemble musicianship. Seeing this orchestra led by Morihiko Nakahara left one with the feeling that there were no limits to what they could accomplish.

 

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