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Musical Prayers 

by Michael Bowen

As originally planned by former Music Director Fabio Mechetti, Friday night's Spokane Symphony concert included only the two Glorias of Antonio Vivaldi and Francis Poulenc. But Eckart Preu filled out a short program by adding American composer Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral, turning the concert's title -- "Two Centuries, Two Countries, Two Voices, One Text" -- into a misnomer.

It's still music of "Two Centuries," all right. But now there are three countries and three voices -- and one of those voices sings without a traditional text.

Higdon's work, just 12 minutes long, will introduce the concert because Preu believes in putting the least familiar work at the start to help "people coming out of Friday-Friday, work-work into the church setting."

After John Adams, Higdon is currently the most often produced American composer: This season alone, U.S. orchestras performed blue cathedral more than 50 times. Besides, it was on the SSO musicians' wish list.

The simplicity of Higdon's score is deceptive: "It's very accessible when you look at the score -- just simple chords," says Preu. "But she has bitonality -- two tonalities -- going on: a C major chord on top of a D major. So it sounds very contemporary in that way."

Starting with faint bell sounds, blue cathedral (1999) makes use of what one reviewer has called "the crystalline harmonies of Ravel" to evoke what Higdon visualizes as "a cathedral in the sky" intended as a memorial to her brother, Andrew Blue, who had recently died.

The work features interplay between the soloists on flute and clarinet. Figuratively, it's the composer's final duet with her brother: Higdon's instrument is the flute, and his was the clarinet. In blue cathedral, they ascend together toward the vault of heaven until the clarinet takes its leave, isolating the flute on earth.

While both Vivaldi and Poulenc set the same section of the Catholic Mass that celebrates and glorifies God, the texts differ somewhat, with Vivaldi's Gloria, adorned with baroque curlicues, ornamenting the notes in 12 sections. Poulenc, who tends to keep matters simpler with just one note for each syllable, wrote a Gloria with just six movements.

"The Gloria with Vivaldi is not as ecstatic as in Poulenc," Preu says. "It's not that -- what's the word? -- fanatic. Poulenc wants to go over the edge. Vivaldi should never sound fanatic but enthusiastic. This is a challenge.

"People feel this is very crucial to interpreting a piece -- the way the enthusiasm is expressed," he continues. Noting that Poulenc was in his 60s when his Gloria premiered, Preu says it has "the enthusiasm of an adult who has finally found that which he believes." But Vivaldi was in his late 30s when his Gloria was first performed (circa 1715), with Preu remarking that Vivaldi's Gloria exemplifies "the enthusiasm of a young person who believes in something, but it's not everything she or he has."

Vivaldi's opening movement (Gloria in excelsis Deo, "Glory to God in the highest") shouts for attention with a series of octave leaps, with trumpet and oboe joining the strings in announcing general joy. The understated, minor-key Et in terra pax ("And peace on earth"), however, hints that Vivaldi may not have been all that certain that peace would arrive on earth, whether or not people were expressing good will unto one another.

In the "Laudemus te" section of the Gloria ("We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee"), both Vivaldi and Poulenc are remarkably playful. One part of Poulenc's Laudemus, says Preu even "sounds wrong -- it has the wrong notes. It sounds out of tune in every recording there is out there. But then I went to the score, and it's written there. I think it's a joke -- people get so excited" in their religious fervor, says Preu, "and then it goes to something like Gregorian chant ... take a deep breath, see the nuns in the distance," and the harmonies resume their seriousness.

At the 1961 premiere of Poulenc's Gloria, critics thought the "Laudemus" in particular had jaunty rhythms too secular for the Mass. But Poulenc responded that "In writing it, I was simply thinking of those Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick their tongues out, and also of some serious Benedictines I once saw playing football."

Preu likes to think that "It's about renewing the Roman Catholic Church service. You don't have to go to Mass and be all sad and serious all the time. Why not see the fun side of faith? Why not have fun?"

As for Vivaldi's "Laudemus," on Friday night, soprano Nathalie Paulin and mezzo Lucille Beer will play tag in an exuberant duet, anticipating the playfulness of Poulenc's Laudemus two and half centuries later.

Vivaldi composed in an age of faith; in a 20th-century cultural context, faith is so much more dubious that works like Higdon's abandon the ritual text altogether. Audience members on Friday will need to bring three sets of ears -- a willingness to listen to three spiritual works in distinct ways.

Publication date: 05/19/05

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