Preu takes listeners on journey through mystery, delight and sorrow

27. Oct. 2014 – Eckart Preu, music director of the Spokane Symphony, chose to open the third in this season’s Classics Series at The Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox with “King Tide” (1999), a work for large orchestra by Sweden’s leading contemporary composer, Anders Hillborg (born 1954). As with most of the modern and contemporary works Preu selects, “King Tide” rewards the listeners who arrive with open ears and mind with a refreshing and stimulating experience.

Before hearing the piece, the audience watched a video recording of an interview Preu held with Hillborg via Skype. Preu asked Hillborg about the inspiration for “King Tide.” Hillborg answered honestly: “inspiration is for amateurs,” he said, and that he has “deadlines to meet.” That is, as a professional musician and composer, his income depends on his production of quality and appealing works that an orchestra half way around the world is willing to pay for the right to include one on their program.

“King Tide” is a work without discernible melody or rhythm that employs a symphony orchestra to produce a flickering, shifting field of sound. The sound swells and subsides as various groups of instruments enter the field or fall silent. The dynamic range of the piece is vast, ranging from barely audible to overwhelming, requiring the musicians to observe the narrowest nuances of expression. The effect it produces in the listener can only be compared with the contemplation of vast natural phenomena, such as the ocean or the weather. Like nature, its changes are fascinating, delightful and mysterious.

The goals that guided Richard Strauss (1864-1949) in the composition of “Death and Transfiguration” (1889), on the other hand, are totally, sometimes tiresomely explicit. In portraying the final minutes of a dying man, the young Strauss assigned a different snippet of melody, or leitmotif, to every thought that passes through the man’s mind, leaving us in no doubt of how we are to feel, and when. The young Strauss’ brilliant gifts of melody and orchestration catapulted him to international stardom, and have assured his works a place on concert programs ever since, though perhaps not on everyone’s list of works of highest artistic merit.

The scrupulous attention to expression and ensemble we heard in the Hillborg piece was applied equally to the Strauss, producing an exquisitely finished performance. Without losing sight of the overall arch of the work, Preu took care to register every detail of Strauss’ complex narrative. Concertmaster Mateusz Wolski’s voicing of the brief violin solos caught the perfect balance between purity and pathos, while principal flute Bruce Bodden’s infallible good taste allowed him to evoke the happy childhood memories of the dying man without ever lapsing into sentimentality.

In the second half of the program, the human voice made its appearance, in the person of soprano Martha Guth and the Spokane Symphony Chorale, under the direction of Julián Gómez-Giraldo.

An exquisitely quiet and touching performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) ubiquitous 4-minute masterpiece, Ave Verum Corpus (1791) was followed without pause by the evening’s major work, the Stabat Mater of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). This work challenges any choral group, especially in the demands it places on an ensemble’s ability to shift rapidly between contrasting moods and styles, as Poulenc turns a succession of three-line Latin stanzas this way and that, seeking new ways for them to catch the light of the spirit.

The text of the Stabat Mater contemplates the sorrowful figure of Mary at the foot of the cross, an image that has recurred in Christian art for centuries. Poulenc was wise enough to incorporate both the tragic and the triumphant aspects of the image. Poulenc asks the chorus to convey these differing perspectives by moving rapidly from hushed lyricism to buoyant intensity to passionate longing, all the while negotiating complex harmonies and taxing vocal ranges. The chorale rose magnificently to every challenge, leaving the audience with an experience of great beauty and spiritual depth. Guth’s soaring solo passages complemented this perfectly. Her spinto soprano has a distinctive warmth of character that was employed masterfully to express the longing and the sorrow at the heart of Poulenc’s masterpiece.

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