Our cherished hometown orchestra played its collective heart out Thursday night for seasoned conductor Christopher Wilkins at the Sottile Theater. Wilkins — the second of six candidates to audition this season for the long-vacant position of CSO music director — led a truly distinctive and memorable program of choice works by W. A. Mozart, Henryk Wieniawski, and Jean Sibelius that left no doubt in anybody’s mind as to the strength of his qualifications. Violinist supreme Karen Gomyo joined forces with Wilkins and company to deliver a jaw-dropping display of passionate virtuosity in the featured concerto.
Wilkins, who was educated at Harvard and Yale (with “finishing school” in Berlin), now divides his conducting time between the Orlando Symphony and the Akron Philharmonic, as well as his summer ensemble, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. Previous positions that he’s filled include orchestra directorships in San Antonio and Colorado Springs, and he has appeared with more major-metro American (and foreign) orchestras than you can shake a baton at. He has guest-conducted here in the Holy City before, and as he told us in Thursday morning’s “Coffee with the Maestro” gathering, he has a distinct “thing” for historic cities. And trust me: His broad experience showed.
The program kicked off with the overture to one of Mozart’s greatest operas, Cosi fan tutte (roughly translatable as “they’re all like that”). Considered rather misogynistic nowadays for its farcical portrayal of women as fickle and opportunistic creatures, the far-fetched plot was hardly objectionable in its pre-feminist day. But, outdated cultural contexts aside, the work remains a comic masterpiece, containing some of Mozart’s most ravishing music — to include the bubbly overture, with its droll and repetitive figurations tossed around amongst the woodwinds between emphatic outbursts from the massed strings. After the slow introductory passage, Maestro Wilkins took the piece at a brisk tempo, and the orchestra kept up very nicely, playing with sparkling wit and precision. Despite a single small disconnect between the orchestral sections, the piece was an absolute delight.
Enter violinist extraordinaire Karen Gomyo, who has dazzled Charleston audiences before, for a glittering go at Polish virtuoso Wieniawski’s second violin concerto, a seldom-heard showpiece for his instrument. Unlike some other leading romantic-era violinist-composers (Sarasate, Paganini), Wieniawski wrote as skillfully for orchestra as he did for his violin, producing a lush, lovely, and well-balanced instrumental framework for what is surely one of the most intimidating displays of fiddle fireworks ever written — making it (as Wilkins pointed out in his commentary from the stage) a piece that’s more often performed in competitions than concerts.
Sure enough, we heard just about every flashy technical trick in the book from Gomyo, though she made the piece much more than just an opportunity for empty display. She worked closely with Wilkins to produce a beautifully interpreted performance, with just as much emphasis on conveying the work’s glowing lyrical beauty as on negotiating the staggeringly difficult solo part. From the first movement’s often unsettled ruminations through the central Romance’s aching musings to the finale’s intermittently Gypsy-flavored high spirits, the entire piece came off as a cohesive and nicely balanced whole that impressed on many levels.
Gomyo made her vintage 1703 Stradivarius sing spectacularly throughout its range, from alternately growly and luxuriant low tones to piercing high notes that sliced through the orchestral fabric like a hot knife through butter, all to thrilling effect. Wilkins gave us a subtle and self-effacing lesson in orchestral accompaniment, which is one of any conductor’s most important and telling skills. Supporting his brilliant partner to perfection, he skillfully negotiated the piece’s pauses and tempos shifts with exquisite nuance and sensitivity, while never allowing the orchestra to drown out the soloist — a particular challenge with violin concertos.
After the intermission, Wilkins and company returned to present the evening’s gourmet symphonic offering: Finnish symphonic master Sibelius’s incandescent Symphony No. 2, the most popular of his seven contributions to the genre. But before proceeding, let me digress long enough to relate what Wilkins had told us about the piece earlier in the day, at that above-mentioned morning coffee klatch. He spoke there of Sibelius’s frequent practice of throwing thematic fragments at the listener early on in a movement or section, then gradually fleshing them out as the piece progresses and ultimately blending them in richly polyphonic splendor. That, plus other observations, enabled me to hear a work I thought I knew well in ways I’ve never quite experienced before.
This is perhaps the sunniest and most optimistic of Sibelius’s symphonies. While his hallmark style and compositional devices are in full evidence, this one seems to evoke a particular sense of nature’s beauty and magnificence, leading many to call it his own “pastoral” symphony (another telling tidbit Wilkins tossed us from the stage). Sibelius’ orchestrations come across as more subtle and introspective than those of most other composers, achieving absolutely unique and original sonic textures that defy any attempt at programmatic classification. Indeed, his music is about as “absolute” as it gets.
Under Wilkins’ assured direction, each of the work’s four movements unfolded beautifully, with the above-described thematic fragments coming at us from every section of the CSO. He and his players then knitted them together with exceptional clarity, achieving an almost Bach-like degree of precise polyphonic perfection. Attentive ears kept hearing familiar snippets coming back at them, but each time in fresh orchestral guise. Then, with all of the musical puzzle-pieces firmly in place, the music soared majestically in perfectly controlled, long-breathed lines from the full orchestra that swelled inexorably to overwhelming, shiver-me-timbers climaxes that left most listeners limp. The massed strings sounded especially rich and rosy. I won’t take you through the various movements; suffice it to say that each one was an utterly absorbing and superbly executed marvel.
I’ve often thought that the Sibelius symphonies are one of any conductor’s supreme challenges, and I’m overjoyed that Wilkins chose to share his winning ways with this composer here. Rumor has it that Wilkins had at first been encouraged to program a sure-fire, crowd-pleasing Beethoven symphony for his audition, and now we know why he held out for Sibelius: truly, there was method to his madness. The audience’s reaction after it was over proved that. A smattering of applause began as soon as the echoes of that final, shattering climax died away. But then, many of the seemingly stunned listeners gradually joined in as they staggered into a standing ovation, the clamorous applause building as surely and strongly as that final climax had. It was a major triumph.