By: Bethany Beekly
This past Saturday, September 21st, at 8:00pm at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, I attended the Spokane Symphony’s first concert of the 2013-2014 season. They opened the concert by playing snippets of the two pieces that audience members voted on last year—Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Satie’s Gymnopedie. Director Eckart Preu then announced that the winner of this audience-choice contest was the Satie, and so they proceeded to perform Gymnopedie in its entirety.
I had actually never heard Gymnopedie for orchestra before—it was written for piano—and I thought the effect was very interesting and quite lovely. It seems like it would be a tough piece to play on the first concert of the season; admittedly they are professionals, but for any ensemble, playing that softly, and that in tune, with so many unisons and such a simple but beautiful melody, is impressive. Next they performed Tchaikovsky’s rousing Capriccio Italien, followed by Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin, which featured world-renowned Russian violinist Ilya Kaler, who has won various awards at the Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Paganini competitions.
Barber’s concerto has an interesting backstory. Apparently in 1939, “Samuel Fels, a wealthy Philadelphia soap manufacturer, commissioned Samuel Barber to write a violin concerto for his protégé…Isaak Briselli,” but this was Barber’s first commission and things did not quite go as planned (Kahn). The first two movements were scorned by Briselli, who did not find them flashy enough, so Barber sought revenge by making the last movement so technically challenging as to be nearly unplayable. Kaler proved himself to be a masterful musician on both fronts. He mesmerized me with his artful phrasing while he played the first two movements, then flew through the fiendishly difficult last movement with incredible dexterity and grace. The entire performance left me breathless. After numerous curtain calls, Kaler finally lifted his violin to his chin once again and gave us an encore: a charming rendition of Bach’s Gavotte in E Major.
After intermission, the symphony finished out the concert with the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is essentially just what it sounds like: an ostentatious piece that shows off the virtuosity of every section in the orchestra in a “soloistic manner” (Kahn). Bartók was very interested in symmetry, which was evident throughout the Concerto as elements from the beginning of a movement returned again at the end and even sometimes reappeared in a modified form from movement to movement.
The first movement opens with a haunting andante section that soon develops into a more energetic, rhythmic theme. In the second movement, entitled “Giuoco delle coppie” (“Game of Pairs”), “five unrelated…dance themes are…strung jauntily together, featuring in turn pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets” (Kahn). Movement III, “Elegia,” was described by Bartók himself as a “lugubrious death song,” and was followed by the interesting “Intermezzo Interrotto” (“Interrupted Intermezzo”). This movement was apparently based on a Hungarian national melody, but the odd shift in the middle “is a parody of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony,” which was intended as a criticism of the “banality” of the German march upon which Shostakovich based his aforementioned Seventh Symphony (Kahn). The final movement, “Pesante” (literally, “heavily”) is passion almost to excess from start to finish, and was a rousing way to conclude the program.
As of this concert season, Gonzaga students can purchase a $25 Student Card that works for these Classics series concerts as well as the Symphony’s Superpops series, which will feature past American Idol finalists. The Symphony has its next set of Classics concerts the second weekend of October, with performances on Saturday, October 12 at 8pm and Sunday, October 13 at 3pm. They will play Andrew Norman’s “The Great Swiftness,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, and will feature cellist Zuill Bailey in Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” for cello and orchestra as well as Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A Minor.
Kahn, Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn. Program notes. “Classics: Virtuosity Required.” Spokane Symphony.