Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2; Debussy: La Mer; Stravinsky: Firebird Suite 

Another sublime orchestral blowout from Spoleto Orchestra and guest stars

A palpable sense of anticipation hung in the air as the Gaillard gradually filled to overflowing with big-band fans who could hardly wait to get their ears on some of the juiciest, most colorful orchestral music ever written. Thursday’s concert was the festival's second (and final) opportunity to show off the formidable Spoleto Festival Orchestra, as well as our only chance this year to hear Spoleto's perennial piano hero Andrew von Oeyen.

And everybody shined brightly in Claude Debussy’s La Mer, his supreme sonic seascape. They positively glittered in Igor Stravinsky’s kaleidoscopic fairy-tale ballet score from The Firebird. And, with von Oeyen's brilliant help, they beat us half to death with Bela Bartok’s pungent (and punishing) Piano Concerto No. 2. But it hurt so goood.

Debussy’s La Mer just may be the best, most convincing impressionistic tone-painting we have. If you let it, the music can take you on a figurative cruise, in the course of which the ocean’s many moods and states are experienced. This quasi-cruise has allegedly made some concertgoers feel vaguely queasy, as their “ship” plows through some of the rougher stretches of the rolling main.

It was obvious that Maestro Emmanuel Villaume has this luscious music in his blood. He led an intense, burnished account that crackled with fierce energy and projected an aura of primeval power. His "orchestra of virtuosos" rose to the occasion, with absolutely first-rate playing from all sections. Villaume drew great, throbbing gushes of beautifully-shaped sound from them -- especially the strings and brasses. The strings' high tremolo passages were exquisite -- even their section trills seemed synchronized in their voyage.

You don’t get to hear Bartok’s thorny second piano concerto very often – mostly because it’s so freaking hard to play. Along with the formidable Prokofiev No. 3 and the even more fearsome Rachmaninoff third, it tops the list of Western music’s most complex and unplayable concertos. But its forbidding rep apparently didn't faze von Oeyen.

He dove right in, joining his (mostly) assured-sounding colleagues in a pounding, pile-driving rendition, relieved only by the odd moment or two of subtle delicacy. But manic momentum ruled as the music churned forward, raw and relentless. That is, until the slow second movement arrived to show us that there were some truly lovely roses among the thorns.

It's a prime example of the "night music" theme that graces several of Bartok's best slow movements. The core melody swelled and faded from the piano, supported by gauzy-soft strings -- until it grew strident, rising gradually to a nightmarish fever pitch. Then, all hell broke loose in a tense and frantic presto passage, before some semblance of edgy calm was restored. With the finale, it was back to the kind of wild and primitive drive that began the work, conveyed mostly by artfully percussive pounding and profuse dissonance from both piano and orchestra.

With emphatic, expert support from Villaume and Co., von Oeyen nailed this one down tight. He dealt brilliantly with Bartok's knuckle-busting fingerwork, imposssibly fast octaves, and precarious hand. Given his obvious confidence and ebullient spirit, many in the audience wondered why von Oeyen played with the score before him -- and a page-turner, too.

Well, it certainly wasn't because he didn't know his notes: you don't even THINK of playing music this hard until both mind and fingers have absorbed it completely. I suspect it may have had something to do with the fact that von Oeyen's arrival in Charleston this year was unavoidably delayed by a last-minute emergency substitute appearance -- and he may have missed some study or rehearsal time with his Maestro. In any case, this is fearfully difficult music for all concerned: lots of meter shifts, syncopations and tricky entrance/cutoff points. The score was probably more a way to help him stay certain of his place vis-a-vis the orchestra.

Speaking of which, they were terrific -- with only a couple of fleeting rough spots that hardly count. The crowd screamed and shouted until von Oeyen gave us an encore: an exquisitely nuanced rendition of Debussy's ever popular Claire de Lune.

After intermission came the Stravinsky. The Firebird was the first – and most conservative – of his three great ballet scores. Yet, using his earlier studies with master orchestrator Rimsky-Korsakoff as his springboard, Stravinsky was brimful of ideas for new and daring orchestral techniques and sound effects. While he didn’t go as far as he later did with Rite of Spring (which ignited fistfights in the audience), this was still far-out stuff for its day.

Here we heard the concert suite that the composer distilled from the ballet in 1919, containing its most remarkable and colorful music. The orchestra sparkled and shimmered in the 'Dance of the Firebird' -- you could hear the birdlike prancing and twittering. Then they turned artfully ugly as they glowered and stomped instrumentally in the 'Infernal Dance of King Kastchei.' The dreamy 'berceuse' calmed things down, before the radiant theme of the finale took over -- a theme that we'd already heard a speeded-up quote of in the Bartok concerto.

The orchestra sounded, in a word, spectacular. They achieved lock-step precision, rhythmic bite and dynamics-on-a-dime -- while bringing us every bit of the music's vivid color and ear-teasing effect. The percussion section outdid itself, with everything from faint tinkles to ear-cleaving bass drum blasts -- and wotta timpani!

And my ears -- three hours later -- are still ringing to the glorious echoes of yet another fabulous orchestral extravaganza.

Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2; Debussy: La Mer; Stravinsky: Firebird Suite • Spoleto Festival USA • $10-$65 • 1 hour 45 min. • June 5 at 8 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • (843) 579-3100

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