Symphony season off to brilliant start

27. Sep. 2009 – The opening of the Spokane Symphony season was all about color. And conductor Eckart Preu showed the orchestra at its colorful best in the controlled unfolding of hues in Maurice Ravel's all-too-famous “Bolero” and in the huge washes of color in Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov's “Sheherazade.”

Preu opened the weekend's concert with “Bolero.” This famous piece is a tricky undertaking. Control is the object. Two themes alternate in repetition over unchanging harmonies over a relentless rhythmic pattern. Preu and snare drummer Paul Raymond - who has been over this territory many, many times - made the rhythmic pattern unyielding while the orchestra's solo woodwinds shifted the quality of sound this way and that as Ravel added weight to the accompaniment.

The effect was brilliant.

The evening I heard the concert, Sept. 26, would have been George Gershwin's 111th birthday (he died in 1937). I am sorry Spokane could not have given him a more stylish performance as a birthday present.

The brilliant French pianist Pascal Rogé played Gershwin's Concerto in F, a work this pianist first performed when he was 11.

Having enjoyed Rogé's performance of French works in past seasons, I found his Gershwin sometimes matter-of-fact, studious, even. He provided many beautiful moments in the dreamy improvisational passages in the first and second movements. And he showed great vitality in the toccata-like drive of the finale.

The preconcert talk had included two short film clips of Gershwin playing his own works with devil-may-care enthusiasm and glowing with obvious pleasure in performing. I wanted more of that sense of enjoyment from Rogé. Often, especially in the first movement, his playing seemed drab, and the directness of Gershwin's lines lacked real drive.

It should be noted that my reservations were not shared by most of Saturday's audience, who gave the pianist a standing ovation. Rogé responded with a beautifully stylish encore, the slow movement of Ravel's Sonatine. Rogé's control of this minuet's flowing melodic line and balance of its accompanying chords was magical - this encore was easily worth the price of admission.

Rimsky-Korsakov's “Scheherazade” may be a foolproof work. But no fools will be fooled if the orchestra is not on top of it and the conductor doesn't know where to lead this sprawling piece.

Happily, Preu, as he showed in his good-humored but instructive introduction, had a very clear view of what he wanted to convey. And he had the orchestra players who could deliver his vision.

“Scheherazade” is a showy piece, not a straightforward musical story but a kaleidoscope of scenes from the “Arabian Nights,” showing Scheherazade as a crafty teller of those 1,001 tales. The first requirement of a successful performance is a violin soloist who can portray the winsome narrator as she shifts through her stories' moods to please her mean-spirited royal husband (he usually kills his wives after the first night).

Saturday's performance had magnificent portrayal of Scheherazade's moods by concertmaster Mateusz Wolski. Wolski's virtuosic flights were echoed later in the work by his colleagues, flutist Bruce Bodden and clarinetist Chip Phillips. There was a touching simplicity the woodwind solos and in the songful episode played by the cello section of the third movement. Preu and the orchestra whipped up a mighty storm as Sinbad's ship was dashed on the rock in the finale.

Another prolonged ovation was rewarded by “The Dance of the Swans” from Tchaikovsky's ballet “Swan Lake.” Opening night was a good omen for the season.

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