Spokane Symphony Review: Beethoven and Belioz played great as the symphony kicked off its 77th season

To open the 77th season of the Spokane Symphony in a spirit of optimism and dedication to the power of human creativity, Music Director James Lowe selected three works that embody these qualities: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 “Emperor” (1809) by Ludwig van Beethoven, Starburst (2012) by Jessie Montgomery and Symphonie Fantastique (1829) by Hector Berlioz.

Although the works of Beethoven and Berlioz are among the best-known and most celebrated in the symphonic repertoire, Saturday’s performances showed that, with skill, imagination and passionate creativity, they can make just as great an impact on an audience and appear fresh and daring in every way, as if the ink on the manuscripts had just dried.

Just four months after stunning her audience at the Northwest Bach Festival with an unrivaled performance of Prokofiev’s Sixth Piano Sonata, American pianist Natasha Paremski took to the stage in front of the beautiful Steinway grand piano at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox to perform the Imperial Concerto of Beethoven – a completely different piece of music. Indeed, those lucky enough to have heard Paremsky’s rendition of Prokofiev wondered how comfortable such teeming imagination – and such volcanic technique – would be within the classical confines of Beethoven’s heroic masterpiece.

The answer is, very conveniently, indeed. Although Beethoven wrote out every note of the piano part, even the cadenzas normally improvised by the soloist, Paremski was able to put her individual stamp on it from the first entry. Two attributes made this possible for her. First, she has greater technical resources than most professional pianists. The speed and fluidity of their scales and octaves, the power and independence of their hands and fingers, or, most importantly, their ability to pull the widest possible dynamic range out of the instrument, and to do so almost seems to know no bounds faster than that mind of the listener can perceive. Second, she is hypersensitive to the emotional effects that can be achieved by a brief pause, a sudden change of color, and she uses this gift to draw meanings from Beethoven’s works that are new and surprising, even to those who know them by hundreds Paint have heard times and fear that it has nothing more to offer.

As her partners in this most integrated and symphonic of Beethoven’s piano concertos, James Lowe and the Spokane Symphony lent their performance a distinctive character that fitted perfectly with Paremski’s view of the work as an expression of defiant heroism. This view places the work more in line with Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Symphonies, as opposed to the Seventh’s Olympian, masterful assertiveness. Employing brisk tempos, heavy accents and the sharply etched instrumental clarity we’ve come to expect from him, Lowe helped deliver a vision of the “Emperor” concerto that has nothing to do with emperors, but everything to do with it the potential of the emperor’s individual human spirit. By the way, this is the reason why we still appreciate the music of Beethoven.

After a brief pause, that intense energy was renewed with a performance of Starburst, a highly imaginative and artistically crafted work for string orchestra by Jessie Montgomery. The orchestra’s diverse string sections tossed Montgomery’s zesty, powerful ideas back and forth with ease and precision while maintaining a perfect ensemble in every section. Such a performance after just a few hours of rehearsing a new piece spoke not only of the skill of the players but also of their commitment to the work and their audience.

Before beginning work, Lowe spoke to the audience and explained that the performance was dedicated to Sandy Williams, the Spokane publisher and community activist who died in a plane crash on September 6th. Montgomery herself maintains a strong connection between her work as a composer and her commitment to promoting social and economic justice, which made her commitment particularly meaningful.

Following his announcement of the dedication, Lowe passed the microphone to Rick Williams, Sandy’s brother, who spoke of the need to continue her work and encouraged everyone within earshot to learn more about the Carl Maxey Center, which his sister had helped found in the frame to support their possibilities. Collection boxes were set up all over the Fox to demonstrate that Beethoven’s message of the brotherhood of all human beings does not lose its topicality as soon as one leaves the confines of the theatre.

It must be admitted that the moral underpinnings of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique are not as admirable as those of the works we have heard earlier in the programme. A musical telling of the tale of a selfish, lovesick fellow who seeks relief from his grief through narcotics would hardly illuminate one’s view of human potential…unless it had been composed by one of the greatest geniuses in the history of European art. Had Berlioz not published a treatise on the instrumentation, his successors could have used the score of his symphony for this purpose. There is scarcely a bar in it that does not contain an unprecedented example of instruments used in surprising, stimulating, or beautiful ways or combinations.

None of these cases escaped the attention of Lowe, who trained the members of his orchestra to play each one to perfection. Whether sultry, strident, or wild, every feature of Berlioz’s vast tapestry was revealed to us by the conductor’s impeccable sense of balance, culminating in the fugue sections of the final movement, The Witches’ Sabbath, rendered with at least as clarity as a jaded member of the audience had never heard before.

Seeing the virtuosity of an orchestra that has just emerged from a long hiatus was perhaps the evening’s greatest inspiration.

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