Spokane Symphony, soloist sparkle in season opener

Monday Sep 19, 2016 • Reviews • Spokesman Review

by larry lapidus

Recommended recordings

1. Richard Strauss, Suite from Der Rosenkavalier Op. 59.

Houston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. RCA/Sony

2. Ludwig van Beethoven, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 61.

David Oistrakh, French National Radio Orchestra, conducted by Andre Cluytens. EMI/Warner

3. Ottorino Respighi, “The Pines of Rome.”

Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti. Angel/EMI/Warner

Saturday’s concert by the Spokane Symphony – the first of its 71st season – was demanding and auspicious. Demanding, because the three pieces on the program require the highest levels of technical and interpretive ability. Auspicious, because everyone involved – the members of the orchestra, their music director and conductor, Eckart Preu, and the evening’s soloist, Ilya Kaler – exceeded those requirements.

All three of the works on the program, performed at The Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, have achieved great popularity with audiences, but for different reasons. The Suite of orchestral selections from Richard Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier” and Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” are both feasts of beguiling melody and evocative orchestral color that sweep us off our feet. The centerpiece, however – Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61 – yields more to us by demanding more from us. The two types of music deserve to be considered separately.

Richard Strauss boasted that his mastery of tone-painting was so complete that he could use music to depict a teaspoon if he wished. In his immensely successful opera, “Der Rosenkavalier,” he evokes the bittersweet existence of an aristocratic woman who finds herself surrounded by luxury, while seeking joy she knows is fleeting through dalliance with a much younger man. To paint this mixture of gaiety, brilliance and melancholy, Strauss asks a great deal of the orchestra, which must now suggest a swirling throng of dancers at an aristocratic ball, and now the cozy warmth of a sidewalk café.

The Spokane Symphony negotiated these transformations with perfect poise, never sacrificing accuracy or ensemble or tonal beauty. The strings, in particular, played with a type of elegance and a lustrous, transparent quality of sound remarkably similar to the orchestras of Leipzig and Dresden. Coincidentally, it was in that area of Germany that Preu received his musical education. By managing transitions between the movements of the suite to perfection, he made what can seem a collection of five unrelated movements sound like a cohesive tone poem, able to stand comparison with such other masterpieces of that genre by Strauss as “Don Juan,” “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and “Death and Transfiguration.”

The splendor of Strauss’ orchestral writing, if not his melodic gift, is matched by Respighi in his “Pines of Rome,” which contains several striking effects that came off especially beautifully. One savored, for example, the tranquil beauty of Larry Jess’ offstage trumpet sounding over a carpet of shimmering violins in the Second Movement, “Pines Near a Catacomb.” The Third Movement, “Pines of the Janiculum,” contained several moments that stick in the memory, such as Chip Phillips’ exquisitely turned clarinet solos, and the delicate washes of tone contributed by pianist Kendall Feeney. In that same movement, Respighi calls for the song of a nightingale, a recording of which is usually played at precise points in the score. Preu’s novel solution was to engage two expert bird-callers who, offstage and on, whistled the calls of authentic Northwest species. This proved far more effective than a recording. In fact, it was enchanting.

In contrast to these sonic blockbusters by Strauss and Respighi, Ludwig van Beethoven chose to begin his only completed Violin Concerto (1806) with four quiet taps on the timpani. From this tiny germ, Beethoven generates a universe of thought and feeling deeper and more exalted than anything else in the violinist’s concerto repertoire. Everyone who attended this weekend’s concerts will be forever grateful that an artist of the stature of Ilya Kaler was there to bring this great masterpiece to life.

A student of two great Soviet violinists, Leonid Kogan and Viktor Tretyakov, Kaler is a worthy exponent of a noble musical tradition, epitomized in the playing of David Oistrakh, that subordinates the performer’s ego to the pursuit of the essential truth of what the composer has left us. The result is such interpretations as we heard this weekend, which have a classic poise and clarity. Such playing knows nothing of fashion, and is thus always fresh and alive. Numbering the myriad beauties of Kaler’s playing, and of his interaction with the orchestra, is far beyond our compass here.

One that cannot be passed over, however, is a passage in the Second Movement, in which the soloist states Beethoven’s utterly plain but also inexpressibly poignant melody accompanied only by soft pizzicato strings. Here, time stood still, as we seemed to be in the presence of the spirit of creation itself. A young friend in the audience, who has had little exposure to concert music of this kind, spoke of such moments after the concert: “It seemed to me like magic,” he said. We can leave it at that.

For those who wish to seek out the piece that Kaler played to perfection as an encore, it is the “Gavotte en Rondeau” from the Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin by Bach.

A recording of this concert will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Monday on Spokane Public Radio, 91.1 FM.


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