After starting out as a bass player in his native Russia and as a conductor all over Europe, Koussevitsky served for a quarter-century (1924-49) as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. With his uncanny ability to spot compositional talent, Koussevitsky proceeded to discover and premiere many of the greatest orchestral works of the 20th century. This weekend's Spokane concerts will feature works that Koussevitsky brought before the public when they were new or relatively unknown.
The concerts will open with the four "Sea Interludes" by English composer Benjamin Britten. They are excerpted from his first opera, Peter Grimes, which Koussevitsky commissioned in 1946 in memory of his wife. Many listeners will recognize the "Sunday Morning" and "Moonlight" interludes, which are frequently performed on their own. The opera is dark and brooding, and the seacoast villagers, who punish Grimes and ultimately drive him to the brink of insanity, are mirrored in these musical representations of the sea.
The centerpiece of this weekend's concerts will be performances by Anne Akiko Meyers of Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. Inspired by a love affair, Prokofiev had composed the opening theme as far back as 1915 -- but World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution intervened, and the concerto wasn't premiered until Koussevitsky conducted it in Paris in 1923. In many respects, it's an unusual work. Instead of the usual fast-slow-fast sequence of concerto movements, this one begins and ends with slow movements, while the central movement is fast and agitated.
Some people consider the beautiful and elegant Meyers to be one of our era's best interpreters of this work. Music director Eckart Preu says, "This Prokofiev concerto needs female hands. Meyers has not only an incredible technical ability but also the sense for lyricism and incredible imagination that will make this performance very special."
In fact, those who expect dissonant or sardonic music, so typical of Prokofiev, will be surprised by the rhapsodic beauty of his first violin concerto. Only its short middle movement hints at shocking elements, with the violinist jabbing at the strings with her bow before rediscovering the singing quality of her instrument again in the concluding movement.
The SSO concerts will close with the Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer. Koussevitsky not only championed this work but also made one of its first recordings. Like the Prokofiev concerto, this Sibelius symphony does not follow the traditional fast-slow-fast sequence of movements. The first movement has a long slow introduction, followed by a faster dance-like section. The second movement functions as an intermezzo, with graceful pizzicato passages for the strings and delicate flute writing. Fast-moving strings open the third movement, until the brass instruments start to dominate the orchestral texture with a warm sound that builds slowly to a powerful ending.
Preu warns against adjusting Sibelius' music to conform to some sort of "proper" musical taste: "Sibelius asks you to do things that go against your 'gut,'" says Preu. "He plays not only with your emotions but with your instincts, your knowledge, and your longings for satisfaction. All the endings in this symphony are strange and unpredictable. They go against expectations, and leave us with astonishment. It's tempting to try to make them 'nice' and pleasing, but Sibelius needs a certain craziness, and we'll try to do that craziness justice."
In addition, Preu says, he's particularly excited to perform these works in the Fox, because the Martin Woldson Theater carries the softest sounds unbelievably well while still being capable of resonating in the loudest moments with force and fullness. These are acoustic properties that will enhance the works of three composers championed by Serge Koussevitsky: Britten, Prokofiev, Sibelius.
The Spokane Symphony Orchestra performs music of Britten, Prokofiev and Sibelius at the Fox on Saturday, April 5, at 8 pm, and on Sunday, April 6, at 3 pm. Tickets: $17-$41. Visit www.spokanesymphony.org or call 624-1200 or 325-SEAT.