Fine cellist highlight of evening for romantics

11. Feb. 2005 – The Spokane Symphony delivered gripping performances of two 19th century masterpieces Friday, plus the opportunity to hear a soloist who is clearly destined to become one of the great cellists of the 21st century.

The symphony's marketing title for this program, "The Ultimate German Romantics," may have overstated matters a little. Romanticism - especially musical romanticism - is impossible to pin down, but certainly Weber, Schumann and Brahms qualify as great romantics any way you choose to define that elusive term. Conductor Eckart Preu began the evening with Carl Maria von Weber's Overture to "Der Freischutz," an opera many see as the beginning of romantic opera with its mix of simple folkishness contrasting with startling supernatural effects. Friday's performance showed how Weber bridged the gap between the age of Beethoven and Schubert and that of Schumann and Brahms.

The revelation of the evening, for me, was Alban Gerhardt's intense performance of Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto. This is a work that often appears a jumble of unconnected ideas. But Gerhardt and Preu made it into a coherent whole despite its many quickly contrasting facets. Gerhardt is only in his mid-30s, but his playing combines a splendid technique with deep concentration and an experienced artist's range of tone - from very soft lyricism to gruff aggression. Schumann's concerto seemed especially tailored for him with its rhapsodic succession of mood.

I was especially impressed by the central intermezzo which combined Gerhardt in a flowing duet with Spokane's principal cellist John Marshall. The finale was also striking since Gerhardt is one of the few virtuosos who use Schumann's own accompanied cadenza instead of contriving a solo cadenza thought to be flashier and more effective. Schumann was right.

Gerhardt responded to the audience's standing ovation with an encore. Not a solo, but an arrangement for eight cellos of the "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Wagner's "Tannhauser." It was a moving sonorous experience.

Johannes Brahms worked on his first symphony for years, hearing, he said, the tread of a giant (Beethoven) behind him. The result was his Symphony No. 1, not finished until he was well into his 40s. Performances of this work over the years have proven milestones for the Spokane Symphony and document the strengths its past conductors have brought to the orchestra. Friday's performance was no exception.

Many in Friday's large audience could doubtless remember the scrupulous attention to detail Gunther Schuller brought to the work in 1980 and the seemingly narrative logic Fabio Mechetti brought to this sprawling symphony in 1998.

Preu built on those achievements. What he added was a greater richness and variety to the string playing. The violin section sounded bigger, but without harshness. And the violas, cellos and basses were weightier but still flexible. The secret seemed to be greater precision with all members of each playing with more exact attacks and releases and greater exactness of intonation, as well. That may sound like a purely mechanical, procedural change. But the result gave more clarity to Brahms' complex layers of melodies and rhythms - always a challenge to even the greatest orchestras - and greater intensity to the way Brahms' music fills time-space as it moves toward its goal.

While soloists often get standing ovations, orchestral performances do not often raise audiences to their feet, no matter how good they are. Friday's performance of Brahms' First did get a well-deserved standing ovation. Preu responded with something very different from Brahms - Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Pizzicato Polka." A charming cap to a memorable romantic evening.

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