Spokane Symphony review: Nakahara’s return is a reminder of many pleasant evenings at the Fox

By Larry Lapidus
The Spokesman-Review
October, 22, 2023

Thanks in part to COVID-19, it’s been several years since Morihiko Nakahara has led a performance in the Masterworks Series of the Spokane Symphony. This weekend featured the welcome return of that gifted and popular musician, much to the evident delight of audience and orchestra members alike.

The program consisted of two purely orchestral works – “Lavil Okap (2020),” by Haitian-born American composer Sydney Guillaume, and the Symphony in E minor, Op. 32 “Gaelic” (1896) by Amy Beach – as well as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major K. 467, widely termed the “Elvira Madigan Concerto” since it was used in a film of that name in 1967. The Mozart concerto afforded Spokane audiences with what one hopes will be the first of many opportunities to enjoy the playing of piano soloist Zhu Wang.

The weekend performances of “Lavil Okap” were U.S. premieres of the work, which was composed to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the city of Cap-Haitien and premiered in that city earlier this year. In February, we were treated to the world premiere of Guillaume’s rousing choral work “A Taste of Freedom” in a performance by the Spokane Symphony, the Symphony Chorale and the Eastern Washington Symphonic Choir. Guillaume supplies in “Lavil Okap” the same infectious rhythmic drive and free flow of engaging melody that we heard in “A Taste of Freedom” only more richly scored for orchestra and set in three separate segments, each one of which employs a different rhythm native to Haiti. Though the work is very skillfully written in a highly polyphonic style, it was kept from ever sounding academic by the composer’s idiomatic instrumental writing, especially his imaginative use of a large percussion section.

Nakahara kept the bustling activity of Guillaume’s suite moving ahead irresistibly. Rhythmic energy seems to emanate not only from the tip of his baton, but from his every limb and muscle. He seems capable of cuing every instrument in the orchestra separately and simultaneously, but always economically and with clear purpose, never to draw attention to himself. He seems to store energy between beats and then releases it to the orchestra at precisely the right millisecond to maintain a spring in the rhythm, regardless of who the composer might be.

He also has the technique to impart a sound to the orchestra that is uniquely his own, and which is clearly identifiable by anyone who has had a chance to hear his work over a period of time. The warm, smoothly integrated sound that characterized the entire program was reminiscent of his masterful rendition of Dvorak’s brooding D minor Symphony No. 7 in 2008, as well as in the spectacular performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in 2018 – a performance which still serves some in our community as a benchmark for what the orchestra can achieve in the way of brilliance and virtuosity.

It may seem that these qualities are not required to the same degree in a piece like the Mozart Concerto No. 21, but indeed they are. Mozart’s smaller orchestra and exquisite writing for keyboard simply expose the continual and incessant activity of his genius. The collaboration of Nakahara and Wang missed none of the myriad wonders of this masterpiece, and yet maintained the natural forward flow of the music.

Wang’s playing demonstrated perfection: beauty of tone, absolute evenness of touch, scrupulous accuracy of note values and tempo. But describing his playing in this way suggests a sort of frosty perfectionism which could not be further from what we witnessed. The miracle of performing Mozart as well as Zhu Wang does is that it produces the effect of complete spontaneity. Likewise, Nakahara kept in balance the countless witty, charming and expressive touches that sparkle in Mozart’s writing for orchestra with the heartfelt lyricism bear them, and us, along to the work’s joyous conclusion.

Responding to the cheers of the audience and applause from the musicians, Wang returned to the stage to perform as an encore the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in G major Op. 31 No. 1. It allowed us to see that he is as capable of mastering Beethoven’s boisterous wit, sudden dynamic changes and flamboyant virtuosity as he is Mozart’s subtler qualities.

It will come as no surprise to learn that Amy Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony does not occupy the same exalted plane as one of the greatest of Mozart’s works. Nevertheless, it is a skillfully wrought work of art by a woman who is an important figure in the history of American music and the feminist movement. Even though the historical importance of her “Gaelic” Symphony may outweigh its purely artistic value, that value is not inconsiderable.

Inspired by Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, and by his earnest effort to establish the foundation of a distinctly American voice in symphonic music, Beach sought to put into practice Dvorak’s recommendations and examples, issued before returning to Europe from his stay in America.

It may be regretted that Beach chose to ignore Dvorak’s instruction to found an American musical style on the music brought to its shores by enslaved people from Africa; instead she elected to feature the music of Irish immigrants. Beguiling as the Irish melodies of Beach’s time can be, they lack the emotional range and variety of African American music. In partial consequence, the emotional range of Beach’s work does not approach either that which we have from Dvorak, or much of that which was produced in the ensuing development of American symphonic music.

Nevertheless, there are many things in Beach’s symphony to give pleasure. It contains much skillful and sensitive writing for the orchestra, especially (following Dvorak) for a very large brass section, providing a chance to revel in the depth of the horn section, led by Clinton Webb. The second movement centers around a charming Irish tune introduced by Keith Thomas, oboe, and then sweetly commented upon by the entire orchestra before being reprised beautifully by Sheila Armstrong, English horn. The third movement contains some striking music for solo violin, rendered with romantic intensity by Concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, who then entered into a duet with John Marshall, who had nearly stopped the show earlier with an arrestingly lyrical cello solo.

Beach’s ability to create memorable moments like these, however, was not matched by her gifts at tying them together in a coherent whole, or at creating either a long emotional arc or a complex, cogent argument imparting significance to a lengthy composition. Nakahara’s tirelessly alert and sensitive conducting, however, at least minimized and often entirely overcame these shortcomings, affording his Spokane audience the best possible chance of enjoying everything Amy Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony had to offer.