Sunday, March 16, 2014

Latest CSO music director candidate brings varied background to bear

Ken Lam and CSO Dazzle at the Sottile

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Sun, Mar 16, 2014 at 1:22 PM

The Charleston Symphony’s Thursday evening Masterworks concert presented a particularly generous and varied program of four substantial works by English, German and Russian composers. Wielding the baton was accomplished conductor Ken Lam: the fifth of six candidates for the vacant position of music director. Joining the orchestra for the featured cello concerto was The Holy City’s own Natalia Khoma.

I was delighted to have a substantial chat with our latest candidate preceding his public “Coffee with the Maestro” interview that morning. I learned, to my great surprise, that Lam – unlike most musicians – came fairly late to professional performing. While he had always been an amateur musician (choral singer, violinist and pianist) during his early years in Hong Kong, he first trained as an economist at Cambridge, England, before becoming an international finance attorney for ten years. Coincidentally, he then became a director and manager at the Naxos classical music label: the distribution/marketing partner of Delos, the label I currently write for.

But the siren song of great music finally prevailed, and Lam came to America to study conducting at Peabody Conservatory. He quickly got off to an auspicious start after he won the prestigious Memphis International Conducting Competition in 2011. He now serves a number of distinguished orchestras (including the Baltimore Symphony) and worked in Charleston during Spoleto 2012, conducting the Chinese opera, Feng Yi Ting. If selected, his varied experience in management and financial affairs would enable him to approach his CSO duties from a uniquely broad perspective.

The concert’s first half was devoted to English music, beginning with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ lush and lovely Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, for string orchestra and harp. The music is about as English as it gets, being based on a folk-melody (and hymn-tune) he had found in the village of Kingsford. The work unfolds with that basic theme before going on to present four more variants of the same tune from other regions of England. The composer’s exceptional musical craftsmanship was evident from the interludes played by small sub-ensembles and the lively polyphonic episode near the end.

I was immediately struck by Lam’s unusually precise and detailed conducting style. It was almost as if his two arms had lives of their own – with the right (baton) hand beating dependable time, while the seemingly independent left hand busily attended to pinpoint cuing and expressive gestures that let his players know exactly what he wanted from them. He’s a conductor who has clearly mastered the art of wordless communication with his orchestras. Under his direction, the CSO’s strings sounded especially rich and mellow, gently punctuated by Kathleen Wilson’s soothing harp.

Enter Charleston’s most distinguished resident cellist, Ukrainian-born Natalia Khoma, for a bracing and virtuosic go at Edward Elgar’s intense Concerto for Cello in E minor, the last major work Elgar completed. Cast in four movements, it was composed in 1918-19, in the wake of World War I: a cataclysm that left the allegedly “civilized” world a very different place. Right from the doleful opening chords, we heard music of deep and anguished mourning for a lost era. The following Lento movement offers relief in the form of a quietly pastoral interlude that soon shifts into a happily skittering passage, as if recalling happier times. The ensuing Adagio offers lovely “cello singing” that flows in a gentler, more nostalgic manner. The often brash and swaggering finale tries to face the “brave new world” with confident optimism — yet moments of doubt and uncertainty emerge here and there, as in the deep and searching solo cadenza. The final coda brings the music to a hurried conclusion.

Natalia impressed throughout with her characteristic big, bold sound as well as her staggering virtuosity and deeply emotive expressiveness. A Tchaikovsky Competition winner, she enjoys a glowing international reputation, and has been a revered teacher at the College of Charleston for nearly a decade now. Lam served as a precise and self-effacing accompanist, supporting Khoma to perfection and handling the orchestral intricacies beautifully.

After intermission, Lam and his musical minions returned to present two big-band blockbusters that gave the CSO quite a workout, as well as the evening’s best chance to demonstrate its collective chops. One of his massive early tone poems, Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration seeks to tell the musical tale of a dying man, wracked by fevered delirium, wretched agonies, and labored breath as his life passes before his tortured mind’s eye. But death’s sudden, crashing release leads, in increasingly ecstatic manner, into an afterlife of radiant fulfillment and triumph over adversity that his earthly existence had denied him. Lam held this sprawling masterpiece together beautifully, and the CSO sounded simply glorious. The enraptured expressions on some of the musicians’ faces as they played were something to behold.

Bringing the evening to a spectacular close was Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 suite from his earlier ballet, The Firebird, his first big smash hit. With this, the first of the three ballet scores he wrote for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dance company, Stravinsky gave notice to the world that he was a composer to be reckoned with. Based on an ancient Russian fairy tale, the often riveting score is brimming with brilliant, then-novel orchestral effects. The music is wildly successful in evoking the wonder of an enchanted garden, the title fowl’s twittering and birdlike prancing, and the villainous demon’s infernal menace. This score demands both a virtuoso orchestra as well as a skilled and confident conductor — and we got both. As our gifted candidate brought the piece to its triumphant close, the final flourish of his baton was greeted by thunderous applause and a well-deserved standing O. This was a very special evening for the CSO and its lucky listeners alike.

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