Spokane Symphony triumphs with Beethoven mini-festival

11. Oct. 2009 – The Spokane Symphony staged a Beethoven mini-festival over the weekend with two excellent concerts at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.

Conductor Eckart Preu took the highly appreciative audience from Beethoven's First Symphony into his innovative middle period, with stops at the Fifth Symphony and the Violin Concerto. Both concerts were filled with the kind of festive dramatics that is Beethoven's trademark.

The Violin Concerto, the only work common to both Saturday's and Sunday's concerts, offered Spokane audiences the chance to hear Mateusz Wolski, the orchestra's concertmaster, as soloist in a great masterpiece - some would say the great masterpiece - for the violin.

As Wolski has demonstrated time and again with his solo passages in orchestral works, as well as concertos by Wieniawski and Karlowicz in past seasons, he is a splendid violinist and a thoughtful and imaginative musician.

What struck me most about Wolski's playing of the Beethoven Concerto was his willingness not to attempt to make this gentle and lyrical work into an in-your-face virtuoso showpiece.

Preu and Wolski's orchestra colleagues collaborated in this view. It was Beethoven's view, too, because the predominant dynamic markings are “soft” and “softer” and a repeated stylistic admonition is “dolce” (sweetly).

These concerts marked Wolski's first performances of this concerto. The temptation must have been great for him to push and bully the work into something it isn't.

Preu chose the two Beethoven symphonies that may best show his leap from a beginning symphonist to the creator whose spirit would hold future symphonists in awe.

In Symphony No. 1, Preu showed the mood of expectation that is present from the uncertain harmonic direction of the work's slow introduction, arriving solidly at the home key only at the Allegro that follows.

The pattern of the four movements is like Mozart and Haydn, but the content has Beethoven's surprises at every turn.

The little operatic scene buried in the second movement, the peasant dance trodding on the aristocratic minuet of the third, and the wit and energy of the finale may be traceable to models in Beethoven's predecessors, but the headstrong 30-year-old made them his own. And Preu made the work unfold like the chapters of a novel.

As Preu pointed out in a good-humored but instructive introduction Sunday, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 was a “completely new ballgame from what had come before.”

The famous rhythmic motto that opens the symphony - ta-ta-ta-TAH - weaves through each of the four movements like a character in one of Shakespeare's plays who alternately takes center stage and lurks in the background. Preu's leadership brought out the dramatic progress of this process.

In the performances of both symphonies, there was fine playing in the solo passages, particularly obvious in the leaders of the woodwind section.

In the finale of the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven introduced the extremes of high and low through the piccolo, the trombones and the contrabassoon. Preu gauged the accumulation of energy in this movement so skillfully that the “new” instruments seemed normal characters in the drama rather than who-are-they intruders.

Both concerts opened with one of Beethoven's overtures, Saturday's with “Leonore” No. 3 and Sunday's with “Coriolan.”

Both performances, despite some raggedness here and there, showed that Beethoven's sense of musical drama easily outstripped the staged drama, whether it was in the composer's only opera, “Fidelio” (originally titled “Leonore”), or in Heinrich von Collin's tedious play “Coriolan.”

Now that Preu has led us into Beethoven's mid-career, perhaps another Beethoven Weekend will take Spokane just as energetically into his later life.

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