Concert lets Fox's intimate side glow

15. Dec. 2007 – Two weeks ago, the Spokane Symphony showed how impressive the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox sounded with a huge orchestra in Stravinsky's splashy "Rite of Spring." Some people wondered how it would work with smaller orchestra.

 

For Friday's Casual Classic program, conductor Eckart Preu brought a chamber-size orchestra to The Fox stage. The result was the same clarity and warmth as with a larger group, but with an almost drawing-room intimacy.

 

Preu opened Saturday's performance with "The Birds," Ottorino Respighi's sometimes silly, sometimes touching suite based on borrowings from 17th- and 18th-century composers. There was very fine solo playing from the symphony's new concertmaster, violinist Mateuz Wolski, and the first-chair woodwind players - flutist Bruce Bodden, oboist Keith Thomas, clarinetist Chip Phillips and bassoonist Lynne Feller-Marshall. The work even had French hornist Jennifer Brummett as a kind of baritone cuckoo, something you don't hear in nature all that often.

 

Cello soloist Joshua Roman is not a child prodigy, however much he looks like one. With a lean body of someone who might be 16 capped by a mop of curly blond hair, Roman plays like the splendid musician he is, a mature 23-year-old. His tone sounds violinistic, without the gravel and groan sometimes associated wrongly with the cello. And his accuracy in intonation and rhythm was right on the mark throughout.

 

Roman played Dmitri Kabalevsky's Concerto No. 1, an audience-friendly modern work filled with the virtuoso panache and lyrical melancholy that seem to be specialties of Russian composers. The soloist brought refined songfulness to Kabalevsky's soaring themes, and he made his bow dance frantically as he charged through those fast, repeated notes of the finale.

 

What made Roman's performance a special experience for me, though, was his intense identification with the music he was playing, with the orchestra players he was performing with, and with the audience he was playing to. That's rare a combination, the makings of a great master.

 

Roman and the Spokane Symphony's principal cellist, John Marshall, rewarded the audience's ovation with a hell-for-leather performance of Jean Barriere's Allegro Prestissimo for Two Cellos. It was hard to tell who was having the most fun - Roman, Marshall or the audience.

 

Preu concluded with Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("The Pastorale"), a work the conductor referred to in his sometimes facetious but instructive verbal program notes as the work of "Beethoven, the hiker" - scenes from nature Beethoven loved so well.

 

Preu's talk pointed out that the Sixth Symphony was composed at the same time as the Fifth, a work noted for its severity and dense organization. Then, in his conducting of the Sixth, Preu showed Beethoven bringing the same intense concentration of resources to music whose serenity makes it so very different from the Fifth.

 

My only quibble with Preu's concept of the Sixth came in his ignoring Beethoven's repeat marks in the first and third movements. The conductor commented that "some people feel the second movement is too long." That might not seem so if the surrounding movements were the length Beethoven envisioned.

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