Something old, something new

21. Jan. 2005 – The Spokane Symphony and conductor Eckart Preu introduced two works the symphony had never previously performed and one that has been done here repeatedly. Both the unfamiliar and the all-too-familiar were full of the kind of warm rewards excellent playing can provide.

In Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, pianist Vladimir Feltsman gave the kind of performance Friday that just didn't seem quite fair. The work is so famous and presents such a formidable challenge to any pianist. But Feltsman made even the concerto's most fiendishly difficult passages seem easy.

Feltsman appeared to study some spot on the stage floor or look off toward some distant spot in the balcony, then erupt in a fury of thunderous octaves or a cascade of perfectly poised scales.

After the torrent that concludes the concerto's first movement, the soloist playfully shushed the audience's spontaneous applause. And at the work's similarly blazing conclusion, he pointed at the audience and mouthed the word, "Now!"

In other, less convincing hands such behavior might have appeared too over the top. But Feltsman played the virtuoso outburst with fearless aplomb and nearly unerring accuracy. And he provided some beautiful songlike phrasing to the concerto's lyric passages – such as the lilting serenade that opens and closes the second movement – and a playful delicacy to spots such as the speeded-up waltz in the second movement and the fleet skipping patterns of the finale. His delight in such playfulness was irresistible to an audience that gave Feltsman an immediate standing ovation.

Preu opened and closed Friday's program with water music – not Handel's famous Water Music – but two lesser-known works that explore watery themes.

The program opened with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sadko," a musical picture of the Ukrainian minstrel who becomes a rich merchant and plunges beneath the seas to entertain the Sea King and his guests. Anyone who has heard this composer's "Scheherazade" knows how well he depicts the sea, both calm and stormy. "Sadko" is a graphic description of the adventure of the hero and it benefited from fine playing and Preu's skillful attention to the work's details as well as his clear concept of Rimsky-Korsakov's big formal picture.

The final work on the program was Alexander Zemlinsky's "The Mermaid," based on Hans Christian Andersen's famous tale. In place of the graphic description in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sadko," Zemlinsky achieves a series of mood pictures that emphasize the dark side of Andersen's tale – far from the Disney version.

Zemlinsky's 1907 work often sounds quite a lot like the richly scored film music of the '40s and '50s, not because he ever wrote film score but because he taught several of the best known film composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold (of "Sea Hawk" fame). I suspect that a full appreciation of "The Mermaid" would depend on the listener getting fairly deep (no pun intended) into this rather dark story. But Preu and the orchestra made it a successful and thrilling musical adventure, even if a listener did not know the title.

As an encore, Preu conducted a zippy performance of that most famous of Easily Identified Flying Objects, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee."

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