Friday, February 7, 2014

Lawrence Loh delivers memorable audition at the Sottile

The latest Music Director candidate scores big – and an old friend returns

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Fri, Feb 7, 2014 at 4:23 PM

Loh - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Loh
Thursday evening’s first (of three) Charleston Symphony Orchestra Masterworks concerts this week showcased the distinct interpretive talents and conducting flair of Lawrence Loh: the fourth of six eminently qualified candidates vying this season for the CSO’s vacant music director position. Adding to the evening’s musical pleasures was the return of former CSO Concertmaster Alexander Kerr (1993-95) for some elegantly fancy fiddling in the featured concerto.

Maestro Loh comes to us with impressive credentials, being the current resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, one of America’s premier major-metro ensembles. And that’s on top of running two other regional ensembles and a busy guest-conducting calendar. His degrees from Indiana University and Yale bespeak the finest training. And it all showed, in a well-chosen and appealing program that revealed the CSO at its virtuosic and lush-sounding best. Firm evidence of both the simpatico rapport Loh cultivated with our players and the thorough preparation he managed in rehearsal, the most important part of any conductor’s job.

Thursday morning’s “Coffee with the Maestro” gathering offered a welcome opportunity to catch a personal glimpse of our latest candidate and explore his musical background and philosophy. In the concluding public “Q & A” session, we even got to pick his brains about what ideas and initiatives he might bring to the Holy City, if selected for the position – and all present were gratified to hear (among other things) that Loh offers both commitment and experience in the area of educational outreach within the communities his orchestras serve.

What better way to begin a concert than with a rousing Beethoven overture? The gruff Viennese genius’s sole opera, Fidelio, has the distinction of being the only well-known opera to have four different overtures, this evening’s example being the final and definitive one (its predecessors being the “Leonore Overtures,” Nos. 1 – 3). Like the others, it remains a staple of the orchestral repertoire and an effective concert curtain raiser. Loh led an emphatic and spirited rendition, with the horn section standing out. While hardly the most flamboyant of conductors, he made every cuing gesture and flick of his assured baton count.

Enter Alex Kerr, for a juicy (and spectacular) go at American icon Samuel Barber’s only violin concerto: perhaps the finest we have from an American composer. Since his 1990s stint as CSO Concertmaster, he’s gone on to become one of the world’s most in-demand orchestral violinists — as well as a revered soloist, chamber musician, and teacher. Talk about thorough preparation. Loh told us that morning over coffee that Alex had sent his metronome markings and other interpretive suggestions to him well in advance of their journey to Charleston — and that the piece had gotten more rehearsal time than any other music on the program.

And it showed: Barber’s genius resulted in a work that not only offered our distinguished soloist ample opportunity to display just about every technical and interpretive tool in his considerable arsenal – but gave our orchestra a real workout, too. The opening movement’s lush melodic and dramatic contrasts gave way to the central movement’s unfettered lyricism. Then, AH: the fabulous, frantic finale that skittered madly in seemingly perpetual motion through its brief course – and jolted the good-sized Sottile crowd to their feet in a clamorous standing O when it was over. The finale’s orchestral parts were just about as virtuosic as the soloist’s, and the musicians pulled it off with nary a hitch. I wonder if I’ve ever heard it played faster.

After intermission came the evening’s magnum opus, Tchaikovsky’s so-called “Pathetique” symphony. The sixth and final work of his symphonic output, Tchaikovsky himself conducted the work’s premiere, but died just nine days later of cholera after drinking contaminated water. Music historians have argued ever since over whether or not his demise was an intentional suicide in the face of looming scandal over his sexuality — with this music standing as his intentional artistic “farewell” to the world. But more recent study has downplayed that notion; after all, the composer’s entire life was a real-world, manic-depressive “soap opera” of exhilarating highs and crushing lows. His music – as with most Russian composers – was often rife with deep pathos and searing sadness.

Still, this glorious symphony seems to support that myth, with opening and closing movements of particularly poignant and tragic nature. Right from the bleak opening theme from the bassoon, Loh and company convincingly wrung every last teardrop and grief-stricken gush out of the score. But the two inner movements were anything but tragic. The second movement’s limpid and lovely quasi-waltz (in 5/4 meter) breathed an aura of pastoral contentment, and the march-like movement that followed was jaunty and joyful. But then, the uncharacteristically slow and self-pitying (“why me?”) finale ended the work on perhaps the most despairing tone in all of great music, especially toward the end, where the music seemed to sink hopelessly into a bottomless abyss of utter gloom and misery.

But then, that was perhaps the evening’s ultimate object lesson: one that illustrates the tremendous therapeutic power of great art. For who among us, even in the course of otherwise happy and fulfilling lives, has not experienced — and survived — just such episodes of crushing despair? Indeed, most of us departed the Sottile last night all the stronger and more resilient for having heard this monumental music.

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