CSO’s “Postcards from Abroad” a Success

Friday, March 29, 2013

Pianist Enrique Graf

THE CHARLESTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA delivered the fifth and final concert of their Chamber Orchestra series on Tuesday evening, delighting their sold-out Dock Street Theatre audience… despite a few problems. Their program, entitled “Postcards from Abroad,” offered a choice array of musical treasures both old and new from various corners of the globe, though the predominant geographic thread was French. The CSO’s cherished Concertmaster-cum-Acting Artistic Director Yuriy Bekker appeared with baton in hand rather than his violin, serving in the combined capacity of conductor and master of ceremonies.

The program began with a sure-fire favorite among orchestral miniatures: the frisky and fun-filled overture to Gioachino Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the most famous among his many fabulous comic operas. Unfortunately—as sometimes happens with concert openers—the piece got off to a rocky start, with several successive ragged entrances and instances of somewhat sloppy ensemble before everybody got into the groove and brought the piece together, taking it through to its finish with panache and sprightly spirit.

Pardon me while I digress into a short essay about the evening’s novelty—and, for many (including me), its highlight. I speak of the USA premiere of a highly appealing and well-crafted piano concerto by emerging Uruguayan composer Florencia Di Concilio: a most accomplished musician whom The Holy City can rightly (and proudly) claim as an “adopted daughter.” She began her higher musical education here well over a decade ago as a piano performance major at the College of Charleston (I got to marvel at her playing several times) before going on to postgraduate study at New England Conservatory … on full scholarship all the way. From there, it was on to Paris (the concert’s first “French connection”), where she studied composition and orchestration; she still lives there, pursuing a thriving career as a film composer. This concerto performance brought the arc of her life in music to a full circle of sorts, particularly since none other than her Uruguayan-American teacher (and distinguished C of C Artist-in-Residence) Enrique Graf was at the Steinway as her soloist—paying moving and well-deserved tribute to his protégé-done-good.

The concerto turned out to be a compact, yet wide-ranging marvel, cast in a single, uninterrupted movement that ran around 20 minutes. It began fairly slowly, with a sense of warm and contented reflection, evoking a soft and lazy summer evening (memories of muggy Charleston nights, perhaps?). Graf’s entrance came with the same gentle spirit, elaborating on the orchestra’s introductory passage in searching progressions of mellow jazz harmonies. A protracted solo piano passage (an early cadenza of sorts) led into passages of spare and simple keyboard textures drifting over a dreamy bed of orchestral textures. I caught fleeting stylistic echoes of Rachmaninoff and Ravel, among others.

Amid several fetching solo instrumental passages from the orchestra, the music gradually built in tempo, volume and thematic intensity—its summery aura giving way to a more urgent, vaguely Gershwin-esque “metro” feel (“An Uruguayan in Paris,” maybe?). Along the way, true to Florencia’s national heritage (and by way of a personal tribute), came a melody that turned out to come courtesy of the legendary “tango king,” Carlos Gardel (Cuba claims him, but he was actually born in Uruguay). Graf adroitly transformed it into one of Gardel’s classic hit tunes, “Mañanita de Sol.”


Composer Florencia Di Concilio

A “eureka” moment came as the piano part moved into more technically demanding territory—from feathery filigree passages to a dense and driven toccata-like episode. Such material, it seemed, could only have come from a composer who is also a virtuoso pianist: which, as I know from personal experience, Florencia most definitely is. But she didn’t leave me much time to think about that, as the music surged in a rising tide of feverishly chromatic and dramatic outpourings, until BANG! It was over. Whew! And Graf was simply superb, from start to finish. I was left wondering if Florencia had him in mind when writing the piano parts. Yuriy and company did a great job, too—supporting him very nicely.

What a fascinating and meaningful experience it was for me to experience the art of someone whose path through life (part of it, at least) I have been privileged to witness in person; someone I can honestly call a friend (and not just on Facebook). While we were never terribly close, I still know, from personal experience, at least something about where Florencia comes from, where she’s going, and what makes her tick. That—plus having some feel for her personal qualities that are beyond skin-deep—blesses me with a kind of unique insight into her creative process that no total stranger could share. Looking back over my happy ride through her remarkable music—this worthy product of her musical maturity—I realized that nobody but Florencia could’ve written it. And it confirmed to me why her growing success as a composer comes as really no surprise.

Back to business: the concert was far from over yet. After the Steinway was muscled offstage, Yuriy returned to lead his colleagues in a very nice rendition of W. A. Mozart’s bracing “Paris” Symphony (No. 31 in D Major), which—as Yuriy explained to us—was written during Wolfgang’s job-hunting expedition to Paris. It turned out to be an unhappy visit: it was there that he came to realize that, even as a supremely gifted young adult, he would never again get the kind of adulation that he had gotten as a precocious “Wunderkind.” Also, his mother (and traveling companion) died while they were there.

Furthermore, even though Mozart had given in to French preferences by limiting his symphony to three movements, the impresario sponsoring him apparently didn’t like its slow movement—whereupon Mozart wrote another, slightly more animated movement to take its place. In this evening’s performance, Yuriy decided to include both of the central movements, and let the audience decide—via respective levels of applause—which one they preferred (the second, slightly faster one came out on top). Besides those, the brisker outer movements—full of color and excitement— were mostly well executed, and enthusiastically received by the capacity crowd.

The concert’s final work was also the evening’s most complex and demanding: French composer Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit (the bull on the roof), is a result of the composer’s brief period of diplomatic service in Brazil. It was originally written as a surrealist ballet score, though some claim it was intended to accompany a silent film by Charlie Chaplin. Whatever its purpose, it’s a delightfully jazzy Latin American romp, built on over thirty popular Brazilian tunes linked by a recurring main “refrain” theme. On top of accommodating all those different melodies, the music careens in polytonal splendor through more than twenty key changes as well as countless shifts in meter and tempo.

While I enjoyed the CSO’s energetic and toe-tapping rendition, there were some recurring performance problems. The orchestra seemed, in places, to lose its sense of coherent ensemble and lapse into fleeting instances of ragged playing… particularly at some of the more sudden tempo shifts. Knowing how good most of the CSO’s players are, I found myself wondering how much rehearsal time this tricky piece had gotten. And, AHA!—My suspicions were confirmed when I learned afterward that there had only been a single rehearsal: hardly enough for music at this level of difficulty. Still, the band managed to project the music’s sense of infectious fun—and the crowd certainly loved it!

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