Conductor brilliant in last test

23. Jan. 2004 – The Spokane Symphony came a giant step closer to ending its music director search Friday with a brilliant performance led by Eckart Preu, the last of the five candidates seeking to fill Fabio Mechetti's position when he leaves at the end of this season.

The concert featured as soloist one of the world's outstanding violinists, Elmar Oliveira, playing in his accustomed top form despite injuries he received in an auto accident last week.

Preu is a German-born conductor trained in Germany, France and the United States. He is currently in his second season as associate music director of the Richmond (Va.) Symphony.

Friday's program - selected by Mechetti - seemed something of a grab-bag, but each piece was chosen to have its own mission. Samuel Barber's Second Essay for Orchestra was a test of how Preu handled American music of the 20th century. Edouard Lalo's Symphonie Espangole measured his skills as an accompanist. And Sergei Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony examined whether Preu could make effective a sprawling, large-scale romantic work.

Preu made an impressive showing.

"A program has to make sense for me," he told his audience in a pre-concert talk in which he showed the connections and differences between the opening and closing works, discussing in layman's terms how composers shape the form of a 10-minute piece like the Barber Essay or a 35-minute symphony such as Rachmaninoff's Third.

The 34-year-old conductor then made his point musically in the concert itself.

I was especially impressed by two aspects of his work:

First, Preu has a keen sense of orchestral color - how to balance sounds to maximum effect. Whether it was the sumptuous massed string sound so beloved of both Barber and Rachmaninoff. Or subtler touches such as the very quiet timpani and snare drum duet that set up tension in the Barber or Rachmaninoff's exotically orchestrated combination of clarinet, muted horn and muted cello that opens the Third Symphony.

Second, there was Preu's ability to command a great range of shadings from a whisper softness to the loudest orchestral roar in order to build climaxes. This I found most striking in the misty, distant waltz Rachmaninoff uses to interrupt the relentless rush of the Third Symphony's finale.

Lalo's "Symphonie Espangole" can be as gaudy a vehicle for virtuoso display as a hippies-era VW bus. But Oliveira plays the work with an aristocratic assurance that leaves this listener, at least, shaking his head at the control of the whole vocabulary of violinistic expression from the growling declamatory opening to the flashing left-hand pizzicatos of the work's final measures, to say nothing of the trills, fingered octaves and sensuous gypsy melodies in between.

Many passages of Lalo's work has echos of Bizet's "Carmen," but Lalo was there first with the sultry Spanish atmosphere that dominate both. Preu proved an adept and sensitive accompanist.

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