by Michael Bowen

Eckart Preu disembarks from his mountain bike, unclips his pants leg, takes off his helmet and brushes back a sweaty mop of hair. Fabio Mechetti didn't arrive for interviews like this.

Once we're inside Spokane Symphony HQ, a Symphony staffer issues a reminder -- "We're going to see you Friday, right?" -- and Preu puts on his best comedic look of incomprehension: "What's Friday? Oh, yeah, the concert. I guess I'll be there."

The concert Preu thinks he might show up for is new enough that it wasn't even included in the glossy preseason brochure: "Symphony on the Edge," an eclectic grab bag of classical works performed not in the usual Opera House confines but in the rock 'n' roll venue of the Big Easy in downtown Spokane.

"It's going to be a very casual affair," says the Spokane Symphony's new music director, adding that he expects his musicians to play in a more relaxed manner while undermining "all the negative images that people project onto symphony orchestras -- that we're stuffy, that we never smile." In some people's minds, Preu laughs, "It's like the Spokane Symphony is wearing this label: NO FUN!"

Of course, there are limits: While there will be seating at the general-admission event, Preu snorts that "there's not going to be a mosh pit -- though there will be beer."

So whose idea was it to have classical players operate in the heart of rock 'n' roll? "This stems from a comment I made about doing a concert, about taking [classical music] out of its normal culture," says Preu. "And I wanted a funky venue."

The "Symphony on the Edge" title wasn't Preu's first choice, but he still likes it for its connotations of "repertoire on the edge. If you're trying to attract a younger audience, you're not going to play a pops program. You're going to play works that are edgy now -- or at least were on the edge when they were written." More important, he says, "We're going to play music that is accessible to the first-time listener."

With often multipart works by nine composers, says Preu, "This program is good for the orchestra, too -- a lot of works that they haven't played, or played very often." In other words, no 90-minute Mahler symphonies during which you have to sit still and act like you're in church.

The program will begin with the rousing final movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which ought to get Big Easy listeners moving around -- if for no other reason than that the composer intended it as "the apotheosis of dance."

Next up, the three movements of Antonio Vivaldi's "Winter" from The Four Seasons, which, familiar as they are, actually have a program involving a man stepping gingerly on ice, then slipping and falling through even as the harsh winds howl.

From then on, it's all music of the last century. "People say, 'Oh, 20th-century music -- it's too modern, I don't think I'll like it.' And I say, '20th century? That's the last century -- it's old now.'"

The Bachiana Brasileira (1930) of Heitor Villa-Lobos attempts a fusion of Brazilian folk music with Bach, and the second piece in the nine-section suite, "The Little Train of Caipira," while written two centuries after Vivaldi, has a program of its own.

Preu emphasizes the visual element of both the Vivaldi and the Villa-Lobos works. "In the Villa-Lobos, you can see the train moving," he says, acting out the horn and startup sounds of a locomotive beginning to accelerate, complete with "woo-woo' and "whoosh" sound effects -- "and he does it with limited forces, too.

"We're also getting here to the question of 'What can music do?' and what it is capable of. Rossini said, 'I can compose a laundry list.' So it's almost like Villa-Lobos is saying here, 'I can compose you a train.'" The work's visual impact will be heightened by the concert's big screen and roving camera operators.

John Adams' Tromba Lontana (1986) is a four-minute fanfare with two solo trumpeters -- to be positioned at the Big Easy, says Preu, far apart on opposite balconies above the stage. "It opens -- this is the one I want to be in darkness more than any other -- eerie, very tranquil. You know, [Adams] started as a minimalist. And there's two ways of listening to that: First, 'there's no melody, it' s stupid' -- and you can reject it. Or, you can allow yourself to relax and be swept up in it." Adams, after all, is hardly obscure: He's the most frequently performed living American composer, and his recent commemoration of 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls, is a classical bestseller.

When the next work on the program -- Prokofiev's Cinderella Suite -- is mentioned, Preu pauses, smiles and shakes his head. "This is just fantastic music," he says. "You listen and you wonder, 'How can he write a waltz like this?'" Preu suddenly improvises as the heroine, overcome with emotion at one end of the ballroom, the back of her hand to her forehead -- "and then he's at the other end of the room, and they rush together, but then they have to go apart, and they come back together. It's all very melodramatic."

Paule Maurice was a French woman who pioneered the use of the saxophone as a classical instrument. Preu has chosen two of the five movements from her Tableaux de Provence, an evocation of romantic love in the south of France. "Gregory Yasinitsky, our principal saxophonist, proposed this piece," says Preu. "It's a little ray of light in between the Prokofiev and the Ives."

Preu has selected the second of Charles Ives' Three Places in New England for Friday night. "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut," dovetails two of Ives' pieces from 1903: his 1776 overture and a country band march. When a little boy wanders off from a jingoistic celebration, Ives deconstructs patriotic ditties. The effect is of patriotism dissolved into dissonance.

Again, Preu is drawing on his Richmond experience: "The fun part of this is, I played this once for 5th graders, and it was a little tough, it was tough -- but they loved it. We explained it to them -- this is a waltz in 3/4 time, here it goes to 2/4 -- but it wasn't the patriotic tunes that they responded to. You know, he's trying to do so many things all at the same time -- but the kids, they responded to the craziness of it all."

The penultimate work is a familiar bit of Americana, a suite of Leonard Bernstein's songs. Preu chose the Maurice Peress arrangement of the West Side Story suite, he says, because "It's orchestrated very well, and it has the mambo part. It's difficult to get the musicians to leap up and yell 'Mambo!' so I'm hoping the audience will 'Mambo!' for us."

If they won't "Mambo!" then, they'll "Mambo!" for "Malamba." That's the final movement from the ballet Estancia by Alberto Ginastera, variously described as "ecstatic, whirling, rousing" and "almost orgiastic."

Sounds like a rockin' good climax for this Big Easy classic rock concert. Ginastera, a kind of Argentine Aaron Copland, quotes folk tunes in the manner of Billy the Kid and Rodeo (though in Ginastera's case, they're about gauchos and the pampas).

With the musicians in T- shirts and folks chattering back by the bar, "Symphony on the Edge" won't feature an audience of little old ladies with their hands held demurely in their laps.

During the Beethoven and Ginastera pieces, especially, Preu's clearly hoping that at least some listeners will get up and gyrate their hips, maybe even sloshing their beers as they dance in the aisles.

And he won't object if you show up all sweaty from a bike ride.

Publication date: 10/14/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.