Symphony review: Zuill Bailey, choruses dazzle in technically difficult performances of Elgar and Mozart

By Larry Lapidus
The Spokesman-Review
April 16, 2023

Your normal concert program assumes that the audience needs a while to settle down and adjust to listening carefully. Thus, most programs start with a brief, easily digested work, followed by a dazzling concerto and conclude with the important, serious work of the evening.

This weekend’s concerts by the Spokane Symphony, however, did not follow the customary template. They began with one of the most challenging – technically, intellectually and spiritually – concertos ever written, and followed that with a work requiring huge resources that comprises the final profound utterance of one of history’s greatest musical geniuses. If the audience lost anything by being denied a more gradual ramping up, the shouts and cheers that punctuated the entire evening gave no sign of it.

The first work was the Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85 (1919) of Sir Edward Elgar. The featured soloist was internationally renowned cellist and Music Director of the Northwest Bach Festival Zuill Bailey. Following a brief intermission, the program concluded with the D minor Requiem K. 626 (1791) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in which the Symphony was joined by the combined choirs of the Spokane Symphony Chorale, directed by Meg Stohlmann, and the Gonzaga University Concert Choir. Featured soloists in the Mozart were Amy Porter, soprano, Amanda Glover, alto, Paul Wolf, tenor, and Derrick Parker, bass. James Lowe, conductor and music director of the Spokane Symphony, conducted the program.

Like all great works of art, the Elgar Cello Concerto fuses elements we ordinarily think of as conflicting and incompatible: joy and sorrow, optimism and despair, fear and longing. Elgar’s life, like all lives, contained these same dualities. Celebrated as England’s greatest composer and the predestined spokesman for the glories of its empire, Elgar was at the same time always the outsider, shunned by the aristocratic circles to which he aspired, due to his common origins and his unpardonable status as a member of the Roman Catholic church.

The Cello Concerto – Elgar’s last complete major work – was written in the shadow of the Great War, in which the brutal underpinnings of England’s imperial establishment were laid bare by the death of nearly 900,000 British soldiers – 6% of the adult male population of the country.

Judging from the recordings that have come down to us from the period following the composition of the concerto, some by the very finest cellists in the world, the dualities of the piece were perceived as what they are: a daunting puzzle, and an effort was made to moderate its emotional extremes by striking a moderate, centrist posture by interpreting the work as a wistful, gently nostalgic and essentially lyrical piece.

All this came to an end in 1965, with the issuance of a recording of the work by the English cellist Jacqueline DuPre and conductor Sir John Barbirolli, which ripped the pastel wrappings off the Elgar Concerto, revealing both the depth of despair and the ferocity of defiance it contains.

While ignoring none of the elements in the concerto, Bailey and Lowe steered clear of the extremities explored by DuPre, partly because Bailey is an essentially positive, optimistic musician, and partly because his complete mastery of his instrument radiates from every phrase, surrounding even the darkest statements of melancholy with a halo of hope. Really, how can one feel downcast in the presence of such gorgeous tone, such pinpoint control over dynamic shading, and, let’s face it, such jaw-dropping virtuosity in the performance of the finger-twisting difficulties with which Elgar peppers the concerto?

The audience irresistibly violated concert decorum by breaking into applause after the second movement, a part of the work which causes problems even for seasoned soloists, but which Bailey swallowed whole, as a bear devours a mouse. He rewarded the wild applause greeting the conclusion of the concerto with a solo rendition of Orpheus’ Melody from Gluck’s opera “Orphee et Eurydice” of such perfection and intensity as to bring tears to the eyes of a statue.

Due in part, perhaps, to the sentimental and, to some extent, mysterious circumstances surrounding its composition, as well as to its intrinsically serious nature, the Mozart Requiem is often performed with ponderous tempi and thick, weighty sound textures. To do so, however, ignores the fact that its creator was history’s greatest composer for the theater, who exhibited his irrepressibly theatrical instincts not only in such operas as Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, but in his piano concertos and sonatas, and even chamber music.

Mozart was in his heart of hearts a man of the theater, and so, when he set to work on a text dealing with the most dramatic of all subjects – man’s hope and fears of death and what lies beyond – he did so with a keen awareness of its theatrical possibilities. Fortunately for us, Maestro Lowe is also aware of the vivid theatricality of Mozart’s score, and gave us a performance of terrific theatrical impact.

Because the essential task of delivering the text falls to the chorus, they are the dominant force in the performance. Though combining the choirs of the Spokane Symphony Chorale and the Gonzaga University Concert Choir created a large performing force, they avoided any hint of heaviness through the spotless clarity of their diction, the airy freshness of their tone, and their strict observance of the sudden dynamic shifts by which Mozart indicated changes in the character and meaning of the text. Whether it was in the quiet intensity of the famous Lacrymosa or the fearful panic of the Confutatis, the chorus communicated the emotional content of the text with the clarity and specificity of an actor at center stage, reciting some of the most significant lines ever set down on paper.

The soloists, too, were careful to maintain the operatic vitality asked of them by Mozart, rather than falling back on the inexpressive tropes of oratorio singing. The sound of Amy Porter’s thrilling soprano entry in the Introit coursed through the audience like an electric current. A rich, colorful tone such as hers is sometimes avoided as inappropriate in performances of music of Mozart’s era, and more’s the pity for that.

Derrick Parker’s dark, mahogany tone had just enough brazen edge to convey both the menace and the grandeur of Mozart’s evocation of the Day of Judgment in the Tuba Mirum. Mozart cast this passage with unprecedented theatrical color as a duet between the bass and the trombone, performed on this occasion with an amazing volume of sound by Richard Strauch .

Lowe’s customary insistence on clarity and transparency yielded great benefits in this performance of the Requiem, whether in clarifying the several voices of Mozart’s fugal passages, balancing the singers with the orchestra, or imparting the sort of spring to the rhythm that distinguishes a vital, expressive performance of a choral work from a dead one.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct trombone player, Richard Strauch, who performed the Mozard duet.