Guest cellist brings passion, expertise

21. Mar. 2010 – Basketball's March Madness did not keep a very large audience away from the Spokane Symphony on Saturday night. The orchestra, conductor Eckart Preu and cello soloist Gautier Capuçon showed the crowd at The Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox what the symphonic shouting was all about.

First, it was clear that Capuçon, a 28-year-old French cellist, fully deserves the accolades he has been receiving in his fast-rising career. Not only did he rip right into the showy opening of Saint-Saëns' Concerto in A minor, he sustained the tension between the showy brilliance and the warm lyric romanticism throughout this fine old piece. Playing a rather larger than usual cello made in 1701 by the Venetian builder Matteo Goffriller, Capuçon was able to deliver a huge range of tonal colors and sounds ranging from ghostly pianissimos to full-throated fortissimos.

Capuçon's technical command was impeccable and his chamber music experience showed in the artful exchanges with solo players in the orchestra. Preu provided a responsive accompaniment that also seemed a real chamber music partnership, not just a discreet background. Preu and Spokane Symphony players have built a justifiable reputation among visiting soloists as an outstanding accompanying ensemble. Saturday's audience heard the evidence behind those reports.

Capuçon responded to a standing ovation with an elegant performance of the Sarabande from the Suite No 2 for solo cello by Bach. The lean purity of his tone in the encore was a beautiful contrast to the warm romanticism of his playing in the Saint-Saëns concerto.

Preu originally planned to open this concert with Leos Janácek's Sinfonietta. Before the season opened, though, Preu decided, instead, to open this weekend's concerts with Georges Bizet's four-movement Suite No. 1, expanded from incidental music he composed in 1872 for Alphonse Daudet's awful play “L'Arlésienne.” The play was a justified flop, but Bizet's music lives on. No wonder. Preu and his players showed the work's ceremonial majesty in the Prelude with its variations on the Provençal carol “The March of the Three Kings” and its tenderness in the music's famous alto saxophone melody - beautifully played by Greg Yasinitsky.

There were many touching moments in the “L'Arlésienne” Suite including a haunting return of the saxophone in the suite's Valse-Menuet and in the short Adagietto for string strings alone.

Some in this weekend's audience were curious to know if Bizet was the first composer to use the saxophone in symphonic music. Not quite. That honor goes to Bizet's older contemporary Ambroise Thomas, who used it in 1868 in his seldom performed opera “Hamlet,” a work currently making a return to New York's Metropolitan for the first time in more than a century.

Preu concluded the concert with Antonín Dvorák's Symphony No, 9 (“From the New World”). Preu pointed out in his remarks from the podium that Dvorák spent nearly three years in the U.S. teaching in New York and spending vacations in a Czech community in northern Iowa. He heard spirituals, and knew (a little) about American Indian music and heard a lot of American popular music, such as the songs of Stephen Foster.

Dvorák's “From the New World” is a swimming fusion of what he knew of American music and what he longed for from his Czech homeland. There was some very impressive playing from the symphony's horn section and from English horn soloist Sheila McNally. Sometimes the trumpets and trombones grew oppressively loud in the finale, but Preu certainly unleashed them perhaps as the composer's statement about the raw grandeur of the “New World” he encountered.

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