An evening of the new and the familiar, all fresh

01. Apr. 2005 – An evening of the new and the familiar, all fresh

 

The Spokane Symphony Friday at the Opera House

Symphony-goers were reminded it was April Fools' Day when they were greeted Friday by a fountain from a broken water main in front of the Opera House. Inside, though, the music about four notorious rogues and tricksters was a treat.

Conductor Eckart Preu may have surprised the audience with two works new to Spokane: "Taras Bulba" by Czech composer Leos Janacek and "Lex" from the "Metropolis" Symphony by American Michael Daugherty. But he opened and closed with two very familiar masterpieces by Edvard Grieg and Richard Strauss.

 

Grieg's "Peer Gynt" Suite No. 1, taken from music he wrote for Ibsen's play of the same name, is the Norwegian composer's most often played music. The freshness Preu brought to each of the four pieces in the suite avoided the "oh-that-again" boredom that comes as part of the baggage of such overly familiar music. His determination to restore the work's sheen was clear from the first bars of "Morning Mood," which he took at the freshly moving tempo Grieg indicated rather than the crawl we have become used to.

Grieg's classical orientation was emphasized in the lightness and clarity Preu and the orchestra brought to the two central movements – "Aase's Death" and the exotic "Anitra's Dance." The last piece of the suite, "In the Hall of the Mountain King," had a steady accumulation of energy that made its furious final outburst as effective as Grieg might have imagined.

While each of the movements of Grieg's suite seems like a quick, self-contained character sketch, the three movements of Janacek's "Taras Bulba" seemed more a cinematic unfolding of this Slavonic rhapsody. Gogol's novella, on which the musical work is based, is not a pleasant story. In the opening movement, the Cossack chieftain, Bulba, kills his youngest son as a traitor. In the second he watches his older son tortured then killed by the Polish enemy. And in the finale, Bulba himself is burned at the stake.

Preu brought out the inventiveness of Janacek's orchestration and the irony of the juxtaposition of gleeful dances with the frightening music of the torture scenes. The oddity of Janacek's jerky rhythms seemed to make perfect sense in the way the scenes unfolded in Friday's performance.

Daughtery's "Lex" was the evening's zestiest treat. The work is a whirl of perpetual motion in an arm-achingly difficult solo played on electric violin by concertmaster Kelly Farris. The orchestra underlined the busy evil of the arch-villain Lex Luthor, Superman's most unrelenting enemy, with a turbulent delight of screaming brass and a massive percussion section complete with no fewer than four police whistles. Preu brilliantly captured Daugherty's clever fusion of sounds from popular culture – rock as well as touches from film and TV scores – with symphonic instrumentation. I think Preu owes us the other movement of the "Metropolis" Symphony in the near feature.

Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" was described by a contemporary of the composer as "the greatest exploration of humor in music since Papa Haydn." It is very funny with its depiction of Till riding a horse pell-mell through a pottery market, dispensing false unction as a priest, and arguing logic with professors. But it is no joke to play. Principal horn Jennifer Scriggins played Till's bold horn theme excellently and she was seconded by other orchestral soloists, as well.

Preu rewarded the audience's enthusiastic response with an encore, the "Furiant" from Smetana's opera "The Bartered Bride."

 

 

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