by Michael Bowen & r & "For me, this is a very spiritual time of year," says Spokane Symphony Director Eckart Preu. "When I think of church, I think of the preeminent instrument for church, the organ. And when I think of the organ, I think of Bach."
That's why Preu will begin Friday night's unusually-late-in-the-year Classics concert with an orchestral version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The orchestration is by Leopold Stokowski, who as a young man made his name as an organist in London; the Toccata (familiar from The Phantom of the Opera and other horror movies) was Stokowski's favorite work. By 1940, he was prominent enough to insist on its being the opening piece in Walt Disney's Fantasia.
But Eckart won't be shaking hands with some nice little mouse -- not that he (Preu, not Mickey) feels constrained by formality and tradition. The Toccata and Fugue, says Eckart -- even as he acts out the famous (and thunderous) opening chords -- may "put us right into a churchy, spiritual mood, but it's so hyper-romantic, with the huge basses, lots of rubato, the tempo changes -- all the things that you're not supposed to do with Bach. Even though it's not pure, not the way Bach is usually done, it's so convincingly done that it's impressive, despite its impurity."
The "passionate, almost maniacal" Toccata, the ne plus ultra of the church organ repertoire, rises impressively toward the divine; it offers the first note of hopefulness in a program that Preu has entitled "A Time for Hope."
Of Bach's Concerto for Four Harpsichords and String Orchestra, the hope is that you might be lucky enough to experience it. Because when Preu says, "You'll never hear this one again anywhere," he's probably right.
This fall, for example, even for a series of concerts at Harvard honoring one of the world's foremost Bach scholars, assembling a quartet of harpsichordists along with the necessary four claviers proved to be "too much of an organizational challenge."
But Spokane has triumphed where Harvard has failed, and the Bach rarity will be performed on Friday night by Greg Presley (of Gonzaga and Spokane Opera), Bonnie Robinson (principal organist at First Pres), Linda Siverts (the Symphony's principal keyboardist) and Keith Thomas (the SSO's principal oboist, but also principal organist at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes).
Robinson comments on the greater degree of difficulty with the piano's precursor: "The keys are narrower, and it's a very percussive instrument," she says. (Inside a harpsichord, the metal strings aren't struck but plucked.) "They're a little out of control, those harpsichords, as far as when a sound will take place," she laughs. "Sometimes it sounds just a tad later or a bit earlier than you intended."
Even rehearsing this concerto requires maximum concentration, says Robinson: "Some parts are just so pretty. But you have to be focused. It's easy to lose your place. I'll be thinking, 'That's so beautiful, what Keith is doing,' or 'How is he doing that articulation?' and then I realize, 'Oh, I have to come in now.'"
But this unusual massing of baroque instruments pays off. "When you have four harpsichords, you have so much sound," says Preu. "All four of them trill -- it's really an amazing sound. It reminds me of minimalism." Then he enacts first one harpsichord playing a melody, then the second, third and fourth joining in, and finally the strings' contribution. "It's the kind of permanent pulsating motion that makes Bach so interesting," he says.
When it comes to Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, Preu is not going to make the audience get up, leave the Opera House and stand alongside the river. (That's for the annual Allegro Baroque performance every July.) Besides, this performance will feature strings and a full orchestra in all six movements that Handel wrote. "Since we're indoors," says Preu, "we can work on balance and articulation -- things that get lost outdoors."
Back in 1749, mania over the Fireworks Music led to brawls, a traffic jam on London Bridge and a substantial fire. Spokane residents, as everyone knows, are better behaved than that. But we're not hidebound traditionalists, either -- which is perhaps why Preu is pondering some alterations to Handel's original. As the Fireworks Music has come down to us, you see, the two concluding Minuets are much quieter than the famous Overture, as Preu notes: "They're not the loudest. They don't have much boom in them."
What, then, about bringing back some of the upbeat, high-volume Overture as a finale?
"Handel may have done that. He may have changed the order," Preu replies. "Maybe they didn't care back then." Back in the 18th century, he says, "They weren't purists, either."
Most first-time listeners to the Third Symphony (1886) of Camille Saint-Saens -- the famous "Organ Symphony" that constitutes the second half of Friday night's program -- "sit through the first movement and wonder, 'Where the hell is the organ?' But this isn't a concerto for organ," says Preu. Saint-Saens instead uses the organ "to enrich the orchestra's musical palette. When the organ first enters, at the beginning of the second movement, it barely resembles a tune -- in fact, the strings have the tune at that point," says Preu. "He doesn't use the big C major chord and the big G major chords until the very last. It's composed as a scream at the end." Even though "it's not about volume at all costs," says Preu, "the whole purpose is to make everything in the church shake, so you can feel it in your feet."
But then the Opera House audience won't be in a church, and Bonnie Robinson will be playing not a church pipe organ but an electric instrument. "For the quiet parts," she says -- like the organ's initial entrance at the start of the second movement -- "you pull out the flute stops and the oboe stops." But at the symphony's conclusion, she says, "you have to be careful not to overwhelm the orchestra, and of course we'll work that out in rehearsal. For the big entrance in the finale, there's a fermata, and then a single note, and then a chord and another chord -- it's so beautiful, and it ends so powerfully. Because it's an electric organ, they'll have it in a number of speakers around the Opera House. When the organ comes in, you'll stand up in your seat when you hear that."
As for the amount of practice time she puts in, says Robinson, "I have to know the music in my heart. I stopped in at the Organ Loft [a store on North Monroe Street] today -- I was there for half an hour -- because I want to be comfortable on that keyboard, so that when I get up there to perform, I can think, "I own this machine."
Part of Robinson's personal rehearsing process involves listening to recordings of Saint-Saens' symphony. "But when I'm driving," she says, "I have to be careful or I'll start speeding. I was driving up to our place on the Pend Oreille River, and I had it on in the car -- and just the beauty of the notes ... I had tears in my eyes."
Almost a spiritual experience, just listening to a CD in a car -- Robinson's experience on the road to Metaline, one hopes, will be replicated for listeners at the conclusion of Friday night's concert. It'll be a time, indeed, for celebration and for hope.