Spokane Symphony trades the Fox for local churches for ‘A Festive Baroque Christmas’

December 7, 2017 GMT

The voice of Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” fills many a household during the holiday season, but in Spokane Symphony Music Director Eckart Preu’s home, there’s likely baroque music playing.

As a performer in a boys choir in his native Germany, it became a tradition for Preu to sing baroque music during Christmas time.

He’ll share that tradition in Spokane when he conducts the symphony in “Chamber Baroque 1: A Festive Baroque Christmas,” Saturday at Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, and Sunday at Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene.

Preu said a lot of the roots of later symphonic music are planted in baroque music, a style of music written between 1600 and 1750 for church services or aristocratic employers. He finds it gratifying to both play and listen to because of its celebratory nature.

“It was all written when music was really entertainment,” he said. “A lot of that music is really upbeat. It’s really fun because it was supposed to be like that. Nobody wanted to be depressed while having dinner. They all wanted to have entertainment.”

Even still, Preu doesn’t think baroque music is played enough by orchestras, which he said focus on ticket sales and “the big symphonic blockbusters.”

“I think for us also it’s so crucial to play it because it puts a lot of things into perspective,” he said. “It’s so beautiful, and there’s so much fun music.”

The lack of appreciation of baroque is partly the reason behind this series, though it’s also a chance for the orchestra to get out of its usual home, the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, and into the community.

New venues bring with them new experiences for those who regularly attend symphony performances in traditional performance halls.

“People who come to us all the time and they hear the big symphonic stuff and the big soloists and it’s all great, but I think the diversity of the experience is as important as the experience itself,” Preu said.

To fit the baroque style, where many songs were performed in churches and 1,500-2,000-seat concert halls weren’t readily available, the orchestra will be about half its usual size.

With a smaller orchestra, Preu said each individual performer is going to be be more important. A closer proximity to the orchestra will also make the experience different for the musicians and members of the audience.

The concert, which will be just more than an hour long with no intermission, begins with Austrian composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s “Sonata per chiesa et camera,” which Preu said is played in Germany often.

Then, the symphony will perform Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto op. 6/8 g minor Fatto per la Notte di Natale (“For the Night of Christmas”), a concerto for two violins, played by concertmaster Mateusz Wolski and principal second violinist Amanda Howard-Phillips, strings and organ.

“You can kind of hear the shepherds and the announcement, when the angels come and say ‘Hark!’ ” Preu said. “There’s certain audible semantic context in the concerto.”

Next up is Czech composer Pavel Joseph Vejvanovský’s Sonata Natalis C-Dur, another piece written for Christmas, though not as storylike as the Corelli concerto, that features trumpet and strings.

“You will actually hear a lot of trumpets in this program,” Preu said. “You want to celebrate something, that’s the trumpet sound.”

Wolski will again be featured during Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico (“The Harmonic Inspiration”), Op. 3 Concerto No. 3 in G Major, RV 310, and the performance will end with German composer George Frederic Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music.

“The Fireworks Music is going to be our big finale, which is also not express Christmas music, but it’s celebratory music and it’s very, very famous,” Preu said. “There’s also the most people in there, the timpani and again the trumpets and the winds, and it’s going to be very, very, very festive.”

After this baroque series, the symphony will still be in festive mode as it prepares for its ninth year performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on New Year’s Eve with the Spokane Symphony Chorale.

Hearing the Ninth on New Year’s Eve is another tradition Preu grew up with thanks to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and he’s happy the tradition has continued in Spokane.

“It’s uplifting. It has a good message at the end for mankind becoming brothers and living together peacefully,” he said. “It was true 250 years ago and it still is.”