Spokane Symphony opens new season on beautiful note

18. Sep. 2004 – The Spokane Symphony opened its season with a brilliant performance to a near-capacity audience in the Opera House on Friday. The orchestra's new music director, Eckart Preu, proved that the search committee that selected him last season made a splendid choice. And pianist Horacio Gutierrez, the evening's soloist, was the frosting on top of a very rich musical cake.

Preu began the concert with a rarity, music from Alexander Glazunov's ballet "The Seasons," a work that follows very much in the footsteps of Tchaikovsky - tuneful, with sumptuous harmonies and filled with ingenious touches of orchestration. The problem this ballet presents to conductors (and listeners) stems from the fact it is made up of some two dozen separate numbers, some not even a minute long. Preu managed to give this chain of short pieces a coherent shape and showed the orchestra's first-chair soloists - particularly those in the woodwinds - to excellent advantage. What a pity that Glazunov didn't live to compose for those big Busby Berkley movie musicals.

Gutierrez was the perfect pianist for Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 - capable of dealing easily with the concerto's thunderous chord passages but able to play the work's delicate figuration and lyric parts with a magical grace that made the notes seem to float from the piano. The secure ease with which Gutierrez overcame Prokofiev's most difficult challenges and the intelligent attention Preu gave the orchestral accompaniment showed off some inventive touches that are often buried in a scramble of notes: The duet passages where the castanets underline the piano's rhythm and the low brass passages answered by high woodwinds were but two such spots.

The clarity of Friday's performance showed just how very classical this concerto is and reminded this listener, at least, how closely it is related to Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony written at almost the same time. But no Russian since Tchaikovsky - no not even Glazunov or even Prokofiev - wrote so effectively for the ballet as Igor Stravinsky. The "Firebird" set the ballet world on its ear in 1910 and Stravinsky never let up. Friday's performance illustrated just what Stravinsky's friend, choreographer George Balanchine, had in mind when he explained the danceability of Stravinsky's music. "There are no empty bars," Balanchine said, no places where the music loses it inevitable sense of direction.

One could sense the building drama in "The Firebird Suite" from the hushed intensity of the opening. Preu knows how to use extreme levels of softness in the Dance of the Firebird and the Dance of the Princesses to make the explosion that begins the Dance of King Kashchei a harrowing experience. Then he turned down the volume again and built the Finale to a glowing conclusion.

Preu rewarded the audience's standing ovation at the end with an encore, Dmitri Kabalevsky's "Dance of the Comedians" from the ballet "Gayne."

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