Review: James Lowe makes confident, energetic debut with Spokane Symphony

Monday Sep 16, 2019 • Reviews • Spokesman Review

By Larry Lapidus

Recommended recordings:

George Gershwin, “Rhapsody in Blue.” New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conductor and piano soloist. Columbia/Sony

Aaron Copland, “Symphony No. 3.” New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conductor. Columbia/Sony, not the later recording on DG

Was the listener merely projecting his feelings on what he heard, or was there not something special about the rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that opened the first concert of the 2019-2020 season of the Spokane Symphony?

Weren’t those dotted rhythms notably crisp and distinct? Wasn’t the unison of the orchestra admirably clear and precise? And the general level of energy flowing from the orchestra … it certainly seemed exceptionally high. Of course, everyone stood as usual, but the number of people singing, and the strength of their voices, stood out against the backdrop of memory.

Perhaps everything was made more vivid by the presence of a new figure on the podium: the new principal conductor and music director of the Spokane Symphony, James Lowe. During the national anthem, Lowe was facing the audience, and one could see the energy radiating from his smile and the clarity and firmness of his gestures.

It is certainly no projection to say that these qualities characterized Lowe’s work throughout the program, which was entirely comprised of works by American composers.

They were a great help to the orchestra in performing John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” (1985), which attempts to convey the mixture of terror and delight felt by the composer at being taken on a ride at high speed in a friend’s sports car. The piece begins quietly. Soon, mimicking the acceleration of the car, the volume increases to a driving fortissimo, which is sustained to the end of the piece.

No sooner does it appear to settle into a steady rhythm, but the piece shifts abruptly into another rhythm while maintaining a constant tempo. This presents tremendous challenges to every section of the orchestra, especially the brass and percussion, which carry most of the responsibility for announcing and clarifying the rhythmic alterations.

Lowe’s manifest confidence and solidity provided exactly the foundation the orchestra needed to negotiate the difficult score. The impact on the audience – breathless exhilaration – was exactly what the composer intended.

A more profound sort of exhilaration was provided by the following work on the program: George Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue” of 1924, surely the most famous and perhaps most successful attempt at defining a distinctive American voice in concert music. Perhaps aided by the fact that he is not native to this country, Lowe demonstrated a keen ear for the stylistic details that anchor the piece in the time and place of its composition.

Chip Phillips’ superb rendition of the iconic clarinet solo that opens the piece, while strictly in tempo, employed satiric slides and phrasings that would have been wholly inadmissible in a piece of European classical music. Likewise, the growling tone and leering wah-wah use of the mute by principal trumpet Larry Jess could only have come from this side of the Atlantic.

Gershwin originally composed “Rhapsody” for a small jazz combo and later agreed to have it arranged for Paul Whiteman’s jazz orchestra by composer Ferdé Grofé. Lowe moderated the homogenizing effect of the arrangement by including three saxophones in the instrumentation, and by emphasizing their sound in the work’s lyrical passages, especially in the gorgeous melody in its central section.

The result was to impart a tart, funky edge to a work that is often so glamorized as to obscure its essential nature. The piano soloist in “Rhapsody in Blue” and the “Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’,” which followed it, was William Wolfram. Wolfram is a towering, powerful figure who almost dwarfed the Steinway concert grand when he sat before it. Yet the tone that emerged from that Steinway was pure velvet: warm, sweet and supple, even at the highest volume levels.

His rendering of the piano part was subtle and sensuous, not at all the shallow, over-insistent voicing we often hear foisted on the piece, even by some very capable and celebrated soloists. Wolfram brought an ear and a technique to the piece capable of interpreting everything from the refined subtleties of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” to the extravagant colors of Liszt’s operatic improvisations.

In so doing, he reminded us that Gershwin lived during the golden age of pianism in which keyboard giants such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhevinne and Josef Hofmann walked the earth. Surely, in attempting to fuse American with European musical traditions, it was the playing of these men that Gershwin had in his ears, playing that emphasized inner voices, sought out new colors and in every way exploited the full resources of the piano. This was the tradition that Wolfram brought to the Fox over the weekend, and it will not be soon forgotten by those fortunate enough to have heard him.

The most challenging work on the program for conductor, orchestra and audience was Aaron Copland’s “Symphony No. 3” (1946). In it, the composer sought to accomplish no less than to crystallize the nature of the American spirit, evoke the rebirth of American energy after the World War II and establish a new, distinctly American voice and style of composition.

He largely accomplished those goals through a work of meticulous craftsmanship and far-reaching intellectual scope, one that places heavy demands on its interpreters. Lowe and the orchestra cannot be praised too highly for the beauty and precision of their playing in the many passages of contemplative quiet, as well as those of loud, angry conflict expressed in a style of dense counterpoint and shifting, indeterminate tonality.

One recalls, for example, the beginning of the third movement, in which first and second violins enter separately, playing very high on the fingerboard and very softly, a passage that will cruelly expose the slightest inaccuracy of pitch or faltering of bow pressure. The strings of the Spokane Symphony executed it faultlessly, achieving an effect of desolate, pale beauty.

Despite the immaculate performance it received, the Copland symphony proved easier to admire than to love, a somewhat lofty and abstract masterpiece, especially when heard in close conjunction with the sexy brilliance and exuberant genius of Gershwin. We look forward to the next concert in the Masterworks Series for an opportunity to see Lowe engage music of more profound emotional impact in Mozart’s penultimate symphony.


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