The Spokane Symphony and Symphony Chorale Friday at the Opera House

Exhilarating effort by orchestra, chorale

12. Nov. 2004 – The Spokane Symphony celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Symphony Chorale with an exhilarating performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 2, sometimes known by its subtitle "Lobgesang" (Song of Praise).

This proved to be one of those large-scale works for chorus and orchestra that seldom get a hearing. But conductor Eckart Preu, the orchestra and chorale, and a fine trio of soloists made an excellent case for it.

Preu chose to open the concert with a proven favorite of concert audiences, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. Schubert's oft-played masterpiece proved an ideal companion to the rarely performed Mendelssohn. Both composers were at the top of their form in song writing, and both works are full of great melodies. And both works were homages to Beethoven symphonies - the Fifth in the case of Schubert and the Ninth in Mendelssohn's.

Preu's conception of the "Unfinished" cleaned away the accumulation of sentimental varnish that has built up in many interpretations. What emerged was a clear picture of Schubert's imaginative gift, not only for melody, but for orchestral color and sonority. I found the carefully balanced melodic doubling of clarinetist Chip Phillips with oboist Keith Thomas and the later pairing of Thomas and flutist Bruce Bodden especially impressive against the restless repeated notes of the strings. Later, in the second movement, there was an elegantly balanced exchange with Thomas, Bodden and bassoonist Lynne Feller Marshall.

The cellos played with great warmth in their famous tune in the opening movement but the moment was tarnished a bit by some unsteady playing from the French horns in the transitions to that theme.

Mendelssohn composed the Symphony No. 2 for the 1840 Leipzig festival commemorating the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's printing with movable type. The overall scheme of the symphony is superficially like Beethoven's Ninth, three orchestral movements followed by a finale with vocal soloists and chorus. Unlike its Beethovenian model or either of Mendelssohn's oratorios, the text is not a unified poem or story, but a scrapbook of biblical quotations in praise of the Lord surrounding a central dramatic episode (also biblical) celebrating the victory of light and goodness (the tribute to Gutenberg) over darkness and strife.

Preu, in a short speech from the podium, rightly praised the work of the members of the Symphony Chorale and their director Lori Wiest, saying that the group sounded "almost like a German chorus." High praise from a musician who was once a member of one of the most famous of German choruses, the Dresden Domchor. The chorale had Mendelssohn's German text down pat - the diction was clear with those crackling Teutonic consonants and the rhythms were crisp and the intonation was admirable. Best of all, the chorale (and the orchestra, too) performed with infectious enthusiasm.

Soprano soloist Marjorie Elinor Dix and Karen Slack and tenor Frederick Urrey were very impressive, as well. Particularly commendable was the duet "Ich harrete des Herrn" by Dix and Slack and the dramatic Watchman's scene with Dix and Urrey.

Friday's performance was a confirmation of the greatness of Schubert's "Unfinished" and a splendid introduction to a Mendelssohn rarity.

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