Symphony meets the challenge of virtuosity

20. Apr. 2015 – Virtuosity in all its forms was the order of the evening at Saturday’s performance by the Spokane Symphony Orchestra at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

 

Virtuosity in music suggests extraordinary power to go beyond the merely correct, and to produce effects of astonishment, wonder and delight. The orchestra, its director, Eckart Preu, and the evening’s soloist, Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa, all gave evidence of this extraordinary power, as did the composers whose works they performed.

 

The presence of a virtuoso orchestra in Spokane is due in great measure to Donald Thulean, the orchestra’s music director from 1962 to 1983, who died on April 9. In tribute to him, Preu and the orchestra played the “Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla” (1842) by Mikhail Glinka, which was the first piece performed by the Spokane Symphony under Thulean. From the blazing but immaculate scales in the violins to the spot-on entrances of the winds to the deep-throated songfulness of the cellos to the flawless timpani contributions of Adam Wallstein, the orchestra swallowed the piece whole.

 

Their ensemble was not so immaculate in the opening work of the program, the little-known Sinfonia in D major by Johann Sebastian Bach. Concertmaster Mateusz Wolski took the demanding solo violin part and surmounted the challenges with ease, as did the orchestra, for the most part.

 

The demands of these traditional works paled in comparison with those of the work that closed the first half, John Adams’ “Dr. Atomic Symphony.” Adams composed this masterful work in 2007 from passages from his 2005 opera, Dr. Atomic, which centers on the figure of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer as he grapples with the moral conflicts of creating the first atomic bomb. Adams asks every part – strings, winds, brass and percussion – to give their all in focus, accuracy and strength, and the orchestra delivered. As principal horn, Kyle Wilbert is asked by Adams to do just about all a horn can do, and Wilbert carried it out with inexhaustible stamina, accuracy and beauty of tone.

The third and last segment of the piece, “Trinity,” features a setting for trumpet of a passage in which Oppenheimer implores God to lift the burden of evil from his soul. The purity, warmth and tenderness of Larry Jess’ playing in this section touched everyone deeply. After this, the delicacy and refinement of Paul Dukas’ beloved “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was like a comforting balm to the audience. Here, Preu demonstrated not only great skill in achieving the precise tonal balance asked by the composer, but also in choosing and maintaining exactly the right tempo. As a result, every phrase in Dukas’ tone poem was able to speak clearly and with a witty, expressive inflection. Valentina Lisitsa, whose performance with the orchestra of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43 (1934) closed the planned portion of the program, is not merely a very good pianist; she is great. Like Daniil Trifonov, whom we heard here in September 2012, Lisitsa has risen above even excellence to occupy a class by herself. She epitomizes the essence of the Russian school of piano, and packs all the ammunition we would expect of a brilliant virtuoso: purling scales, rippling arpeggios and thundering octaves. But her true superiority as an artist is revealed by her frequent use of the soft pedal to reveal depths of color unimagined by others. Her rendition of the slow, quiet passages, such as Variation 7, in which she played a duet with principal bassoon Lynne Feller-Marshall, and 16, in which she partnered with the doleful oboe of Keith Thomas, were unforgettable. In these moments, she and Preu lifted the Paganini Rhapsody above the level of colorful showpiece, and showed it to be a truly great and humane masterwork.

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