Charleston Symphony launches new music director search in style 

So and CSO in sweet harmony at the Sottile

Thursday evening’s opening concert of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s 2013-14 Masterworks Series could hardly have gone better, thanks to an inspired orchestra, a program of exceptional appeal, the glowing voice of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Luiken, and the brilliant work of blossoming Maestro Perry So. So is an emerging young conductor of exceptional gifts and accomplishments. But before I go into detail, you need to know that all six outings of the current season’s Masterworks series are important events, because each one will be conducted by a different candidate for the CSO’s vacant Music Director post. If Mr. So’s presence and performance are any indication of the level of talent that the CSO is attracting to the Holy City in its search, then we, the lucky listeners, are in for a very promising Masterworks season.

So, now 32, hails from Hong Kong, is Yale-and-Peabody-educated, and sports an impressive record of competition wins, major orchestra collaborations and distinguished mentors. A particularly telling aspect of his background is his undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature from Yale, bespeaking his abiding interest in great writing of any ilk — as well as how literature and music have cross-fertilized each other through the ages. I mention that because that very interest was instrumental (no pun intended) in So’s choice of the memorable evening’s first two program selections, both of which are rooted in great literature.

The Manfred Overture is certainly one of Robert Schumann’s classiest creations for orchestra, written to precede a larger three-part drama-with-music that remains practically unknown nowadays. Based on Lord Byron’s quasi-autobiographical dramatic poem of the same name, it reflects the Faustian hero’s tortured and guilt-wracked quest to find forgetfulness in the wake of an undisclosed sin. The music thus mirrors the common Romantic-era theme of hopeless despair and longing; despite a brief glimmer or two of hope, emotional turbulence and remorse run rampant throughout. So and company made the music’s prevailing desolation of the soul entirely palpable, producing convincing musical sighs, sobs, and sharp pangs of despair, while juggling the music’s many disparate elements with great skill and sensitivity.    

You’d have to be a rock not to love the magical music of Franz Schubert. Perhaps the most convincing measure of his greatness is simply the sheer number (like, dozens) of other great composers who were helplessly drawn to the gut-wrenching beauty of his music like moths to a flame. Many great pianist-composers (including Liszt and Rachmaninoff) have transcribed the irresistible tunes and sometimes startling harmonies of Schubert’s art songs (he wrote well over 700 of them), often turning them into virtuoso showpieces. But quite a few other composers of note have left us versions of them with the original piano parts sonically fleshed out for orchestra; here we were treated to six of the finest, interpreted to perfection by Charleston’s very own mezzo-soprano extraordinaire, Jennifer Luiken.  

The songs traversed quite a range of moods and effects. "Gretchen at the Spinning-wheel” (orchestrated by Max Reger) gives passionate voice to the torments of love, floating over the hypnotic accompaniment’s repetitive musical “spinning wheel.” By contrast, the perky melody of “The Trout” (orch. Benjamin Britten) depicts the title fish as it cavorts in the accompaniment’s “babbling brook.” It was the perfect foil to “You are Peace” (orch. Anton Webern): a gentle, but heartfelt love song. Reger also gave us the orchestral versions of the next two songs: “To Music” is a potent tribute to everybody’s favorite art form, and “Night and Dreams” is a soft, nocturnal reverie.  

The Schubert set came to a resounding close with his first real masterpiece (written at age 16): "The Erl-King" is an edge-of-your-seat mini-melodrama, setting a Goethe poem about a mythical underworld monarch who appears in terrifying hallucinations to a delirious dying child as his father clutches him while galloping through the night on horseback. The thundering accompaniment, courtesy of Hector Berlioz, sets the manic, headlong tone.

The singer’s challenge here was not only to convincingly portray the poem’s four different characters (narrator, frantic father, terrified child and evil king), but to be heard above Berlioz’s thrilling (but rather heavy) orchestration. Fortunately, Ms. Luiken is endowed with both a sturdy set of pipes and a rock-solid lower register, such that she never failed to be heard — even in the Sottile Theatre's spotty acoustics that are not always kind to vocalists. So made sure the orchestra didn’t dominate, while showing off his ability to make his orchestra “breathe” naturally with the soloist.   

After halftime came the finest of Czech masters Antonín Dvořák’s orchestral masterpieces (to my ears, at least): his Symphony No. 7. By the time he composed it, he had perfected his hallmark musical idiom, achieving ideal syntheses of nationalistic folk style and classical structure. His reverence for the carefully built classical creations of his mentor, Johannes Brahms, shows in the work’s intermittently “serious” passages. But Dvořák’s music is simply too lovable to maintain any sort of Brahmsian sobriety for long. Like Schubert, he was a master melodist and peerless manipulator of musical emotion through many similar structural and harmonic devices, like perfectly-timed major-minor key shifts as well as startling modulations and transitions.

I won’t try to break down all four of the work’s marvelous movements here. Suffice it to say that hardly any other composer’s music is quite so chock-full of sweet and tangy musical cherries as Dvořák’s. Hardly have his enchanted listeners gotten through one such incredibly moving passage before another moment of almost unbearable beauty is upon them. And So — ever wearing his musical heart upon his sleeve — didn’t let a single instance of searing emotion get past us. Such music as this is the safe way to overdose on ecstasy.

If you weren’t there, don’t worry: the program will repeat tonight (Friday) and again on Saturday. Just head to the CSO’s website, and get your ticket before they sell out.      


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