Ken Lam and CSO Debut at Gaillard Center
THE OFFICIAL GAILLARD CENTER DEBUT of new Music Director Ken Lam and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) started leisurely with an overture by Brahms, rose in grandeur with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, and went wonderfully over the top with Sir William Walton’s spectacular Belshazzar’s Feast which calls for a large orchestra, an even larger chorus, and one splendid solo baritone.
Although the house, surprisingly, was not full, the musicians played and sang beautifully to a warm audience, and those who were not at the gala opening a few weeks back got a chance to learn what all the “noise” has been about in terms of the new design and acoustics.
The revamped hall, which is taller than it is wide and has a full array of private boxes and multi-layered balconies, easily absorbed the Academic Festival Overture, Opus 80 by Johannes Brahms (1833–1847). Appropriately, as the program notes pointed out, one of the main themes of the overture is “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattiches Haus” which talks “about building a new house.” Brahms certainly provided a gentle, dignified “welcome” to a new season in a new home.
Considering that this was the first official performance of the CSO in the new hall, it is curious that Ludwig Beethoven, due to invading deafness, made his final appearance as a concert soloist at the first public performance of his Concerto No. 4 in G Major for Piano and Orchestra. Also interesting is that this concerto, unlike most, opens with the piano rather than with the orchestra to whom the piano eventually joins or responds to. It is almost as though Beethoven was having the first and final word. It also seemed so natural to hear the solo instrument start a concerto that you wonder why more composers did not do it. Established forms, not to mention imitation, are indeed powerful forces.
Russian-born pianist, Daria Rabotkina, displayed her highly refined technique and delicate touch (she has great musical chops having had musician parents and a slew of master teachers and mentors) in her handling of the fourth concerto which is ripe with gentle melodies, rich harmonies, and delicious trills—all juxtaposed to a powerful, forceful orchestration. Beethoven loved such combinations and contrasts, not only because they reflected his conflicting nature, but because they allowed him to exercise his never-ending interest in experimentation—for which other composers and certainly listeners are grateful.
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There’s a good chance that few people (particularly the unfortunate ones who left at halftime) were familiar with what lay in store for us after intermission: Sir William Walton’s (1902–1983) fabulous Belshazzar’s Feast: Cantata for Choir, Baritone Solo, and Orchestra, which he penned in 1929—amazingly at age 27—as a commission for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).
What started as a small orchestral piece grew into a work of gargantuan proportions that has gained a reputation as one of the greatest choral works of Britain and of the twentieth century. In our case, we heard nearly 80 musicians joined by the combined CSO and College of Charleston Choruses along with baritone soloist, Dashmond Burton.
The cantata, which doesn’t fit your traditional formula for a cantata, goes all over the place musically while maintaining a splendid coherence throughout. And even though it tells the serious story of Hebrews held prisoner in Babylon, it incorporates fun, even whimsical, sections that help hold your attention rapt for the full 35 minutes.
One thing that makes this work fabulous listening is the large orchestra which offers almost every sound imaginable through an added arsenal of organ, double harps, and percussion. The orchestra and chorus also stand clearly apart from each other at times—now as a virtuosic symphonic work, now as a resplendent a cappella piece. When they do join forces, it is with a musical magnitude that is special to hear.
That magnitude also put the new hall to perhaps its first serious acoustical test, which it passed with flying colors. In fact, the new facility seems designed exactly for this kind of big, glorious sound. Never before could you hear individual and group sounds stop and start so cleanly as you can now.
This quality of effect was also due to the measured but mighty hand of Maestro Lam who seems extremely comfortable with a large, complex musical load at the end of his baton. He led with firm dexterity and the orchestra and chorus responded superbly—joyfully it seemed. It was a gorgeous concert. It also foreshadowed what appears to be a perfect combination: the orchestra under direction of Maestro Lam and the chorus under Dr. Robert Taylor. Their musical tastes, techniques, and styles seem perfectly matched to yield precision performances that we are sure to enjoy.
Putting the final punctuation on Walton’s “Feast” was the glorious voice of solo baritone, Dashon Burton, whose program bio unfortunately did not mention that this was his second visit to Charleston this year when, at Spoleto, he showcased his unique talent in Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” (read more about that here). Mr. Burton’s voice is a booming golden baritone whose richness of sound rises above the orchestra with a combination of depth, control, and clarity that few soloists can match. He was the perfect fit for the Walton work, too, due to his having to sit idle for extended passages and then, upon standing, to immediately match the scope and profundity of a hefty orchestra/chorus. Both the audience and the vastness of the hall itself delighted in his far-reaching, honey-toned voice. Bravo, Mr. Burton. Bravo!
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Concert Note: One of the best things about this year’s CSO program is the superb collection of program notes by College of Charleston Professor Emeritus, Dr. William D. Gudger. It is well worth arriving early, and before the lights go down, to appreciate not only his wealth of knowledge but his natural flair for opening the doors to our listening pleasure.
* With special thanks to Rita and Henry!