Symphony review: Orchestra, soloist and conductor astound in final performance of 2022-2023 season

By Larry Lapidus
The Spokesman-Review
May 14, 2023

Something sensational took place on Saturday night at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. Yes, the music was great, the soloist was spectacular, and the Spokane Symphony played brilliantly.

But there was something more than that. Music Director James Lowe pointed to it when he took the podium to announce the recipients of this year’s awards to outstanding Spokane-area music teachers and an arts administrator: the power of music to unify large groups of people in a way that can be achieved by no other means.

Not only had everyone onstage and in the audience come from who-knows-where to spend time together. By the end of the concert, we felt unified in a single purpose, breathing with a single breath, listening through a single pair of ears to every subtle pause, every witty phrase, every shimmering sound the composer had given us.

We did not choose to stand up to applaud, we were drawn from our seats by the irresistible unifying force of music. It was the final concert of the 2022-23 season of the Spokane Symphony, but the first in which the orchestra and its director achieved the total fusion – among themselves and with the community – they had worked so hard for over the past four years.

Though hard to pinpoint, the awareness that the evening held something special dawned during the performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major Op. 77. The soloist was Benjamin Beilman, who was last in Spokane in 2017, performing the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the orchestra.

Fine as that performance was, the Tchaikovsky does not present the interpretive challenges that are found in the Brahms Concerto, which is unique in the subtlety with which it delineates a relationship between the soloist and the orchestra. In most performances, the soloist approaches every phrase with the goal of making the greatest possible impact on the audience. In some others, the soloist, attempting to appear more thoughtful, plays along as though commenting on whatever the orchestra has to say.

Beilman and Lowe, however, have plunged deeply into the piece, demanding to be satisfied as to what Brahms intended by every interaction of the orchestra with the solo violin part. Consequently, they were able to offer us not a succession of pleasurable moments, but an organism – an artwork that lives in time as we do, encountering uncertainty, doubt, hope, and, ultimately joy. For someone who has lived many decades in search of the Brahms Concerto, it was a thrill to encounter it at last.

After circling uncertainly about one another throughout the first movement, alternately seizing and relinquishing the role of torchbearer, the solo violin and the orchestra resolve to proceed in a single rank in the second movement. It begins with a long meditative melody in the oboe, stated with his customary warmth and sensitivity by Principal Keith Thomas. Beilman noted during his remarks before the concert that he had never heard the part performed more beautifully than it was by Thomas, and neither has anyone else.

Beilman takes the melody up, however, explores it from several angles, and finally brings it to a level of intensity approaching ecstasy before rejoining the orchestra in calm meditation. It was an example of artistic collaboration at the very highest level.

So caught up was the audience by the passionate interaction that they rose to their feet shouting, “Bravo!” after the first movement, and nearly brought the house down with their acclaim after the piece concluded. One has to go back to 2012 and the acclaim accorded to superstar pianist Daniil Trifonov to find an example of a comparable reception by a Spokane audience.

As the 19th century approached its turn into the 20th, an increasing number of European composers sought an alternative to what they felt to be the oppressively metaphorical/philosophical character of German Romanticism, whether it be as practiced by Brahms or by Richard Wagner and his followers. Some of these composers sought clarity and objectivity in the music of the street and the tavern as sung and danced to by the common folk. As an ethnomusicologist, Bela Bartok (1881-1945) recorded and codified such music that originated in Hungary and used it as a foundation for a body of compositions that stand among the very greatest of his time.

In part because Brahms’ Violin Concerto was written with the collaboration of the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, and because Brahms makes abundant use of what he considered folk-based materials in the work, especially in the last movement, Maestro Lowe programmed two orchestral works of the 20th century by Hungarian composers, Bartok and Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006). The pleasure they both offer, and it is considerable, comes from experiencing the brilliance and ingenuity with which their composers deploy the resources of the orchestra. That is, it is the sound itself that is the meaning of these works, not a separate narrative, psychodrama or system of philosophy to which we are directed by the music.

In 1931, Bartok orchestrated a group of five instructional piano pieces of his youth and published them as a suite called “Hungarian Sketches.” Reflecting their origins in folk music, the five movements feature individual instruments as soloists, supported by strings and percussion.

Principal clarinet Chip Phillips immediately captivated the audience with a creamy, subtly inflected statement of the melody that begins the first section of “The Hungarian Sketches,” titled “An Evening in the Village,” while the strings provide a calm backdrop.

Ligeti referred to his “Concert Romanesc” as a “concerto,” and well he might. It is very much a concerto for orchestra, in which the composer displays a high degree of mastery, requiring both individual instruments and whole orchestral sections to exhaust the full resources of their instruments.

Novel ways of managing the interaction between groups of instruments abound in the score, as when Ligeti creates duets for two horns: one onstage, played by Charles Karshney, and the other (played by Andrew Angelos) in shifting locations in the balcony. In the final section of his “Concert,” Ligeti creates a part for the first violin that is, in its way, as demanding as the Brahms Concerto. Concertmaster Mateusz Wolski dispatched the quicksilver bowings and intricate fingerwork with the easy nonchalance of a tavern fiddler, though there are few of those with such technique.

In his classes in orchestration at the Moscow Conservatory under its director, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, students acquired skills similar to those so brilliantly employed by Bartok and Ligeti. They were deemed insufficient, however, by one bespectacled student who was capable of hearing what no one had ever heard before, and who remarkable gifts at hearing what lay in the future altered the course of Western music.

For Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), providing variety to orchestral sound by playing different instruments in sequence was not enough. He imagined a new universe of orchestral color, achieved through unprecedented simultaneous combinations of instruments. His music to the ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1913)” employed this technique, first to cause a riot, and then to initiate a new era in the history of art.

As Lowe has pointed out, however, much of this revolution had already been accomplished by Stravinsky in his earlier score (1910) to “L’Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird),” the suite from which (1919) concluded last weekend’s concerts.

While the score to “Firebird” contains some lovely and haunting melodies, Stravinsky does not rely on them to the extent that Tchaikovsky does in his three immortal ballet scores. Rather, it is his mastery of rhythm and, above all, his unequaled sensitivity to timbre, or instrumental color, that sets “The Firebird” apart as an indispensable component in the foundation of Western art history.

With his exceptional gifts at achieving balance and transparency from an orchestra, Lowe is the ideal conductor of this music. Under his hands, the score shimmered, growled and glowed, just as Stravinsky dictates in his meticulously notated score.

To the conductor’s indications, the orchestra brought a degree of mercurial lightness and responsiveness that defied criticism and disproved any suggestion that it has ever known a better state than the one in which it exists right now. Members of the audience were heard describing themselves as feeling in an altered state, impatient to hear what the next season will bring.