An Unprecedented Evening with the CSO

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Soloist Yuriy Bekker

HOW MANY OF YOU have heard a master violinist perform live in concert right here in Charleston on an instrument made by Antonio Stradivarius (1644-1737): the legendary north Italian craftsman who is almost universally regarded as the world’s finest-ever maker of violins?

Actually, quite a few of Charleston’s music lovers have probably heard them played here (I’ve heard at least two in Spoleto Chamber concerts, as well as in a recital by Joshua Bell). But never have so many Charlestonians heard a vintage “Strad” at one place and time than at the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s jam-packed Masterworks concert at the Gaillard last Saturday… and that was only one of several aspects that made this concert an extra-special, even unprecedented event.

The program kicked off with a seldom-heard work by Hungarian master Zoltan Kodály: his delightful Dances of Galanta. Young Zoltan grew up in the north-Hungarian town of Galanta where he was strongly influenced by the excellent town band and the many local folk-melodies that they played. That influence later led Kodály to travel extensively during the early twentieth century as a young man—often together with his famous countryman, Béla Bartók—throughout the eastern European nations to collect authentic folk materials that later resurfaced in both composers’ music.

This five-section piece beguiled from start to finish, with its piquant folk-flavored melodies and catchy syncopations. Ranging from slow and soulful to fast and furious, the music often incorporated orchestration twists that imitated some of the actual folk-instruments and ensembles that the composer had heard during his travels.

Conductor Darko Butorac

Guest conductor Darko Butorac—a rising young Serbian maestro—led a performance that made it sound like he had this music in his blood. He brought out everything from mournful Gypsy pathos to frantic “friskas,” realizing the exotic sound and spirit that has made the Hungarian idiom so popular among European composers from Haydn’s day to the present. He drew smooth, burnished sounds from the strings, and kept brisk tempos going that gave the woodwinds in particular a real workout.

Three of that section’s fine players got well-deserved solo bows afterwards, including flutist supreme Tacy Edwards and oboe master Mark Gainer. But Charlie Messersmith and his dulcet clarinet got the most applause for his ardent and aching passages at both the beginning and end of the piece.  Pure pleasure!

Then came the evening’s centerpiece and the part of it that got the most advance buzz, for a number of reasons. Well-known local composer and College of Charleston professor Edward Hart—being a longtime friend of the CSO’s vaunted concertmaster Yuriy Bekker—decided a few years back to write a violin concerto as a gift to him that he could perform with his beloved orchestra. Working closely with Yuriy,  he dubbed the concerto Under an Indigo Sky and it gradually took shape. Ed Hart described it as a musical “love-letter” to his home sate of South Carolina—and the piece got it’s “Special Premiere” performance on this memorable evening.

But the most recent development that helped make it extra-special came courtesy of a Philadelphia couple, Winifred and John Constable: the owners of a vintage 1686 Stradivarius violin known as the “ex Natchez” for one of its past owners. The Constables, who have links to the Lowcountry, have been concerned about all the turmoil that threatened the CSO’s fortunes not so long ago. Following the orchestra’s recent collapse, reorganization, and resurrection, the Constables resolved to do what they could to promote the CSO’s continuing artistic growth and progress by adding a touch of public pizazz and glamor to the orchestra’s image.

Yuriy Bekker and Darko Butorac

A phone call from them last December led to the loan of their precious Strad to Yuriy for this performance (though future loans seem likely). And their strategy worked: the advance media coverage was enormous. The triple-whammy of a new, SC-inspired work by a cherished native son, played by Yuriy, Charleston’s beloved “adopted son,” on a legendary and almost priceless instrument (One Strad went for nearly $16 million at auction just last year) combined to generate (as CSO executive Director Danny Beckley confirmed after the concert) record-breaking ticket sales and attendance at around 2,700—the Gaillard just won’t hold any more people than that! Even the balcony’s nosebleed section was full to overflowing.

Everybody got their money’s worth, and more. The first movement of this distinctly (and deliciously) programmatic piece—marked “Fast Flowing Rivers”—was inspired by the mid-state area, in and around Columbia. That bustling city is surrounded by an equally bustling confluence of rivers which the whip-punctuated movement effectively symbolized.  There was something of a busy “Gershwinian” metro-musical mood to the music, in contrast to highly virtuosic solo passages that often hinted at bluegrass-style country fiddling; it struck me as a most effective slice of musical Americana.

Yuriy simply nailed it. It sometimes sounded as if the solo violin was, at times, part of the overall string textures framing it, before blossoming out into solo prominence: an effect which the composer later confirmed. But said effect could’ve varied widely, according to where you happened to be seated: the Gaillard’s acoustics can be very spotty, often cloaking a violin’s sound. But from where I sat, Yuriy and his Strad rang out nicely over the largish orchestra.

Next came “Warm Salt Air,” which I consider to be the concerto’s heart and soul. I don’t have to tell any Charleston resident about those warm, humid subtropical evenings along the Lowcountry’s coast, with their uniquely close and fragrant ambience, drifting like a comforting blanket over smooth waters. As Ed told us in his program notes, “Imagine a May sunset overlooking the water … and a sea breeze moving softly through the palmetto trees.”

It is this movement that most effectively revealed our composer’s ability to evoke in music the quintessential aura of his home turf. It brought the same sort of general “feel” to its listeners as did his earlier “Tidal Concerto” for piano (as performed by another friend, Enrique Graf).

Composer Edward Hart at rehearsal

I reviewed the CSO’s performance of that one some years back—and, as I wrote then, “You could smell the pluff mud” (to me, one of the “sweetest” smells on earth).  The music unfolded like the kind or impressionist painting that one gradually sinks into, in slow and deliciously “lazy” washes of long-breathed sound. It’s much more lyrical dimensions enabled our soloist’s Strad to sing out in its full tonal glory—which Yuriy had described earlier as “sweet, golden, and with a broad palette of tone colors.” Kudos to principal cellist Norbert Lewandowski, who, towards the movement’s end, engaged in a luscious little musical “conversation” with the soloist.

The final movement, “Misty Blue Horizon,” sought to evoke the upstate regions surrounding Greenville—with their often haze-filtered vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the north. I had also heard the work the day before in rehearsal, before reading the program notes, and first perceived it as a sort of “sea quest” (blue horizons are also characteristic of ocean views). The music has a grandly kinetic, rolling feel to it, with reverential touches that lend it a hymn-like, quasi-sacred dimension.  It also gave our soloist the chance to again display both his virtuosic talents and the ravishing sonic qualities of his instrument—though in more urgent and dramatic ways than in the previous movement.

Maestro Butorac had obviously spent much time and effort studying and digesting this complex score (which I had gotten a glimpse of the day before).  It’s always a particular challenge to conduct a brand-new work. He was all over the podium, beating its often varied rhythms with great precision, and cuing his players meticulously. And his musicians played their hearts out for him, as well as for their revered concertmaster-soloist. The combined efforts of all involved prompted a screaming, foot-stomping standing “O” that got us a sweet encore: Sir Edward Elgar’s exquisite miniature, Salut d’Amor—which gave Yuriy his best chance yet to demonstrate the virtues of his rare instrument in sentimental, long-breathed romantic melody.

(I can’t resist telling you about a magical moment that was a direct result of my treasured friendship with Yuriy. Before the rehearsal the day before, as I stood in a Gaillard hallway, Yuriy caught sight of me after finishing a taped interview (for TV, I think). He came over and gave me a hearty one-armed hug while carefully holding his violin in his free hand. “This must be the Strad,” I murmured, awe-stricken. He nodded, as I asked, “May I touch it?” Reaching out with hand all a-tremble, I gingerly brushed its ancient surface with a fingertip—whereupon Yuriy tucked it under his chin and proceeded to play a snippet of the gorgeous melody of the “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thais. So, not only did I get to touch a Strad for the first (and probably last) time in my life, but I got my own personal “serenade” on one: a precious moment, and a spontaneous gift that I’ll never forget. Thanks, Yuriy! )

Strange as it may seem to describe a Beethoven symphony as an anticlimax, it couldn’t help but take second billing here, given all the media fuss over the previous work. But Beethoven is Beethoven, and his mighty seventh symphony brought the evening to a resounding and glorious close. Described by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance” for its energy and rhythmic vitality, this wondrous work has it all—and will live on as long as there are orchestras to play it.

The opening movement breathes noble drama and rolling grandeur before lapsing into its blithe and dancing vivace section. The following Allegretto, while moving along at a fairly smart pace, still melts the heart with its lyricism and pathos. The genuinely funny and headlong scherzo—marked Presto—brought smiles to everyone’s faces. Beethoven, ever the solemnly worshipped musical “God,” rarely gets the credit he deserves for his episodes of lighthearted humor … didn’t you hear the descending cascades of giggles and titters from the woodwinds?

And, Oh, that blazing, triumphant finale! Butorac and company offered a very fine rendition of it, negotiating its every turn and nuance with passion, skill, and sensitivity. Maestro, you can come back anytime, as far as I am concerned.

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