Tribute to Ott opens series' last concert

02. May. 2010 – The Spokane Symphony ended its Classics Series “entangled in passion” (to quote from the concert's title) with two performances of music by Wagner, Strauss and Franck.

Conductor Eckart Preu and the orchestra's musicians brought the passion to a rolling boil Saturday at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox. The concert was repeated Sunday.

Saturday's performance was a tribute to Margaret Saunders (“Margie May”) Ott, pianist and internationally known piano teacher, as she approaches her 90th birthday. In place of the symphony's usual pre-concert lecture, 16 of Ott's former students saluted her with a concert performing the sixteen movements of Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition” relay-style.

Preu opened the orchestral part of the evening with “Venusberg Music” from Richard Wagner's “Tannhäuser,” written for the 1861 Paris production of the opera as a concession to the French expectation of ballet music. Wagner was no ballet composer, but he could evoke erotic storminess and amorous lyricism. The orchestra rose to Wagner's sensuous demands with noble passages from the horn section and solo playing by clarinetist Chip Phillips.

Preu paid his tribute to Ott by adding the orchestral setting of Rachmaninoff's “Vocalise,” one of her favorite works, to the scheduled program. Its tender songfulness was stated first by concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, then taken up by the full first violin section with brief solo passages by Phillips and English hornist Sheila McNally.

Preu then returned to the subject of sexual heroics with Richard Strauss' portrayal of Nikolaus Lenau's version of “Don Juan.” The exuberance of the 24-year-old Strauss' orchestral virtuosity is fiendishly difficult, but Preu and his players brought the Don's initial boldness vividly to life and showed his growing frustration and his final disintegration as the music seems to vanish rather than end. Wolski played ardently as the Don serenaded.

And the performance included excellent playing from the brass as well as by oboist Keith Thomas and other orchestral soloists.

Preu ended the concert with passion from an unlikely source, the Belgian-born, German-oriented César Franck, a composer thought of as French merely because he lived and worked in Paris most of his life.

Franck was personally easygoing and sweet tempered, but his music could roar with Wagnerian passion as Preu and the orchestra showed Saturday with Franck's Symphony in D minor.

Franck was not a symphonic “natural.” He was a great organist and an unexcelled improviser on the instrument. Preu allowed Franck's organ-like approach free rein - listeners could almost see an organist changing sonorities by drawing on various solo stops, layering them on to build greater intensity, or making use of the organ's capability for echo effects.

Despite its improvisatory sound, Preu made clear in his remarks from the podium, and in the performance that followed, Franck's extremely tight control of the symphony's organization.

Franck begins the work with a three-note motif quoted from Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 135 (also used by Liszt and Wagner, among others) and used it relentlessly linking the symphony's three movements.

Franck chose not to write a conventional four-movement symphony, instead making the second movement a combination of a slow movement with its beautiful English horn solo (McNally, again) and a fleeting ghost of a scherzo with running figures for the violins and a cheeky tune from the clarinets. He finished the movement by combining the two.

The symphony's final Classics concert showed that if you have to be tangled up in something on a Bloomsday weekend, that something should be passion.

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