An eclectic, emotional tour

09. Mar. 2007 – Conductor Eckart Preu led the Spokane Symphony's near-capacity audience on an exciting musical tour at the INB Performing Arts Center on Friday with unusual works by Carl Nielsen and Einojuhani Rautavaara.

 

Sarah Chang, the evening's soloist, gave a brilliant and remarkably intense account of Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto.

 

Rautavaara, who will turn 80 next year, is Finland' most famous living composer but has only recently achieved wide recognition in the U.S. His "Cantus Arcticus" started out to be a cantata for chorus and orchestra. But Rautavaara switched from human voices to the sounds of birds - the avian songs and cries he recorded in the Finnish north near the Arctic Circle.

 

Preu programmed only two movements of the three-movement work, but they were captivating displays of the interaction of orchestra and bird sounds that Rautavaara manipulated a bit in the recording studio. The movement called "Melancholy" used the song of the shore lark against a meditative cushion of sustained string sounds. The lark's song was slowed down and came at a lower pitch, giving it a quite haunting quality.

 

Rautavaara recorded a small group of whooping swans, then overdubbed the sounds so they seemed an armada whose cries interacted with the high sustained notes of the violins, repeated patterns of notes in the woodwinds and a noble melody in the French horns. The interplay rose to a climax and drifted into silence as the birds receded. Very effective.

 

The Danish composer Carl Nielsen lived at the same time as Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. But his work could never be mistaken for theirs. The four movements of his Symphony No. 2 ("The Four Temperaments") depict the four characteristic states of mind and body that were the basic of medieval medical thinking: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholy and sanguine.

 

The opening characterization of the choleric man - aggressive, angry, often warlike - was restless even in its quietest moments. There were uneasy moments, too, when rapid unison passages in the strings just were not quite together. But the tempestuous effect was there. The phlegmatic man was represented by a charming armchair waltz (a phlegmatic person would never actually dance!) Melancholy movements seemed to be a specialty of Nordic composers. And the "Melancholy" third movement dominated the symphony, characterized by weighty tunes in the strings and anguished sighs in the winds. The "Sanguine" finale bristled with energy but had the comic relief of a flirtatious melody in the violins that reminded the listener that "amorousness" is one of the characteristics of the sanguine temperament.

 

This concert was the first time the Spokane Symphony had performed pieces by either Rautavaara or Nielsen. They were welcomed newcomers to the orchestra's repertoire.

 

The hit of the evening, though, was Sarah Chang's riveting account of Sibelius' Violin Concerto. This young woman (she is 26) has been playing this concerto for more than half her life. But never once did she allow her attention, or the audience's, to wander. Her immersion, and ours, in Sibelius' sound world was as nearly complete as I can imagine. It was a gripping 25 minutes without a second's letup.

 

Sibelius left no technical difficulty unexplored for the soloist and no orchestral effect untouched. Chang had a superb grip on the work - its exploration of the full range of violin sound from the whisper-soft opening to ferocious fortissimos in the finale, from the passionate beauty in the slow movement or the stormy volleys of scales in the outer movements. It was refreshingly human when one rising series of double-stops went just slightly awry.

 

Preu and the orchestra were right there with duets such as Chang's exchange with violist Nicholas Carper in the first movement to the sturdy polonaise rhythms of the finale.

 

This concerto is a profoundly moving piece, and Friday's performance pulled out all the emotional stops.

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