Let me digress long enough to put in an impassioned plug for the ever-amazing SFO, one of the most unique orchestras you could ever hope to hear. Year after year, I’ve been disappointed to find that rather few Spoleto-goers are fully aware of the band’s collective pedigree and origins. In a nutshell, its 90-odd members comprise a cross section of advanced students and recent graduates of America’s tip-top music schools. Young musical wizards who are poised to take their rightful places as international A-list soloists or as future members of the world’s most distinguished orchestras and chamber ensembles. Trust me when I say that the SFO probably contains more raw talent than any other orchestra on earth. I don’t have room to tell you their whole story in this review, but you can click here to peruse a detailed article I wrote about them a few Spoletos ago: a piece that will tell you why — more than any other performing entity — they constitute the festival’s true “backbone,” without which Spoleto as we know it could never happen.
The first piece they blessed us with is one of the most universally cherished and widely known of American classics: Samuel Barber’s lush, lovely and emotionally searing Adagio for Strings. This masterpiece is Barber’s own five-part arrangement of the slow movement from a string quartet he wrote in 1936. Thanks to its use in several film soundtracks (most notably the one for Platoon), it’s one of those classical works that’s familiar to the general public. It also exists in a choral arrangement.
Conductor Young and the SFO string sections executed it to perfection. Their collective tone was rich and rosy, ravishing the audience’s collective ear. Their sectional intonation was stiletto-sharp, an ensemble quality that’s essential in order to fully reveal the effects of the music’s intermittently close harmonies. Young saw to a searching interpretation, guiding his players expertly through the piece’s achingly tense buildup to a massive climax, while squeezing every last drop of emotion from the score.
Next up was contemporary icon John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, an orchestral distillation of musical ideas from Adams’ 2005 opera, Doctor Atomic. This harrowing opera relates the story of America’s development of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II; much of it told from the perspective of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the genius physicist who oversaw the weapon’s development. The work is cast in a single movement containing three seamlessly linked sections.
The symphony, quite literally, began with a huge bang, with hammering percussion beneath strident and spiky harmonics that force a feeling of ominous apocalyptic dread and terror upon the helpless listener. It’s not hard to imagine the nuclear devastation of the desert landscape. The protracted central section doesn’t let up appreciably, evoking as it does the frenzied panic among the development team as a fierce electrical storm threatens to disrupt the countdown to their initial bomb test.
The finale is much calmer, but no less disturbing, as it represents Oppenheimer’s remorseful struggle with his conscience over what he and his staff have unleashed upon the world. His plaintive voice, heard in the lead trumpet’s repeated ruminations, speaks of guilt, regret and inner conflict. The trumpeter (whose name wasn’t in the program) was simply superb. The SFO players were in their element here, as this is music of their time, and in a language they “speak” fluently. Maestro Young held the sprawling piece together beautifully, dealing with its myriad complexities (much of them rhythmic) clearly and precisely while expressing both the score’s horror and ambiguous emotion most effectively. The crowd leapt to their feet in a raucous standing “O” when it was over. I was overjoyed to witness their overwhelmingly positive reaction to a piece of contemporary music.
The evening’s centerpiece, however, came after intermission. Béla Bartók’s magnificent showpiece, Concerto for Orchestra. Hearing it, it’s hard to imagine that this — one of the supreme masterpieces of the 20th century — was written as the composer was battling the leukemia that killed him in 1945, after he had fled to America from his native Hungary to escape the ravages of World War II. Cast in five varied movements, the work is hardly a conventional concerto. Bartók both avoids the traditional concerto format, and dispenses entirely with the notion of a soloist, assigning “solo” roles instead to each of the orchestra’s instrumental sections: brasses, woodwinds, strings, and various other instrumental teams. Almost no member of the orchestra misses a chance to shine, either singly or in small ensemble; all parts pretty much demand virtuosic abilities from its players, making this work a supreme challenge to any orchestra.
Compared to many of Bartók’s earlier works, this music is surprisingly accessible, despite the fact that it contains many of the composer’s hallmark characteristics and techniques: folk-like melodies, Hungarian flavors, complex rhythms, arch-like structures, and even his unique approach to what many call his “night music.” Without going into the individual movements, the expressive range is enormous, encompassing dark brooding, nocturnal mystery, droll wit and humor, blithe playfulness, gripping excitement, and exultant triumph. It’s essentially Bartók’s final, genius-ridden summation of his life’s work.
The SFO’s players outdid themselves throughout, performing with collective brilliance as well as youthful intensity and exuberance. Maestro Young took the bull by the horns, catching every mood and impulse and driving his musicians nearly to their limits, all the while demonstrating his mastery of the complex score. This was orchestral art at its glittering, ebullient best: an event that most of the fortunate audience will never forget. It’s far and away the finest performance of the work I’ve ever heard in concert.
If you’ve never heard the SFO in action, you’re missing something supremely special. If you hurry, you may still be able to get tickets to their second and last event as a full orchestra: next Tuesday’s Beethoven Transformed event, under the baton of Spoleto’s own John Kennedy. See you there.