CHORAL & CONCERT MUSIC ‌ One Satisfied Spoletian 

The festivals keep piling on the musical goodness

click to enlarge Chamber Music stalwarts Chee Yun and Wendy Chen, Music in Time director John Kennedy, and humorist/chamber series organizer Charles Wadsworth
  • Chamber Music stalwarts Chee Yun and Wendy Chen, Music in Time director John Kennedy, and humorist/chamber series organizer Charles Wadsworth

With the big opening nights and series starters behind us, I was happy to get down to the wondrous workaday world of the dual festivals, the heady crunch of more varied events than a body can possibly keep track of, the mad dashes to catch that next concert, the keen anticipation of treasures to come. Then there's the bewildering daily task of deciding what to see and what to pass by, and of course the anguish and self-abuse when you find out you missed a real winner.

If, like me, you've had the good fortune to experience much of the best for a solid week and more, you know how the mind balks at putting it all into perspective. It's like when you go to a lavish potluck picnic, and almost nosh yourself sick trying to taste everything. Every Spoletogoer has a unique festival tale to tell. So all I can do is tell you mine and hope it intersects your own at some key points.

I don't think any true-blue classical fan would deny that Mahler's mind-mauling Symphony No. 5 was the week's smash musical hit. As predicted, it generated more orchestral oomph than any other event in either festival. With all those decibels bouncing off the Gaillard walls Thursday night, I imagined bystanders on nearby George Street trembling for fear it was Charleston's next big earthquake.

But there was a lot more to it than just big sound. I described this piece in a preview as a manic-depressive roller-coaster ride, a psychological thriller for orchestra, and that's exactly how Emmanuel Villaume and his brilliant young SFO musicians treated it. There's a revealing Spoletobuzz blog comment from bass player Matt Heller, who described how Villaume pleaded with them in rehearsal to let go emotionally — to dare to feel "mean, mad, schizoid, hysterical, heartbroken, exultant," and so forth. That's like telling your kids you want them to misbehave, without knowing for sure how you're going to keep all the resulting chaos under control.

But control it he did. Though you knew, just from watching him sweat and strain at the podium, that he had a tiger by the tail. The performance crackled with raw, slam-bang emotion from start to finish. Gifted phenoms though these players be, they're mostly fresh out of (or still in) school, with limited big-band experience, and they've only had a few weeks to get used to playing together. And you give them one of the repertoire's all-time toughest nuts to crack? It helped to have a strong-willed but civilized Frenchman in charge.

Sure, there were a few small rough spots. Sometimes, after a particularly intense or violent passage, there seemed to be a passing lack of focus — as if the orchestra were running briefly on autopilot, gathering its strength before all hell broke loose again. There were a couple of minor instrumental flubs, shapeless moments, and the odd rhythmic disconnect or two. But that was pocket change to pay for all the magnificent musical carnage otherwise unleashed.

However Villaume did it, these kids were psyched. Concertmaster Joana Frankel attacked her poor violin so savagely that her bow was in tatters by the end of the second movement. There was none of the cool complacency or sense of ho-hum routine that you often hear even from major orchestras in this kind of music. This was vital, visceral Mahler — the kind that maybe you can get only from young people who haven't yet had their illusions or sense of reckless passion dashed. And for more than an hour, they made us feel exactly the same way they did. Three days later, I was still limping mentally.

But before and since our main meal of Mahler, there have been untold appetizers, smaller entrees, and desserts to sample. Beginning with Monday's second Intermezzi series program, we got to hear near-perfect traversals of well-known piano concertos by Haydn and Mozart, courtesy of Andrew von Oeyen and a small band of SFO players that he led from the keyboard. You could tell his smiling colleagues were just dying to make good music with him — it was like a polished classical jam session among friends, only they all wore basic black.

And yet more Intermezzi magic came my way: Wednesday's program II featured pianist Olivier Reboul, who coolly brutalized the keyboard with near-impossible virtuoso showpieces by Liszt and Ravel. Yes, there were a few finger-slips — but I dare any pianist now in town to do better. Sunday's concert offered a heady assortment of Mozartean delights, one from the master himself and five short tributes from modern composers, with moods ranging from tragic to downright funny. It was a typically mind-stretching evening from conductor John Kennedy.

Speaking of our main modern-music guru, Saturday's Music in Time outing (Program II) was an ear-opening affair that showed off individual talents among the SFO. Cellist Victoria Bass eerily accompanied her playing on one piece with her own wordless voice. We also got nonstop Russian angst for string trio and a probing Israeli violin sonata. Comic relief came from a pair of good-sport percussionists wielding flip-flops, steel pipes, and variously filled beer bottles while (between sips) reciting a poem about culture shock. And I'm still trying to figure out just what the musical value (besides humor) there may be in the vaguely obscene sounds a trombone makes with its bell dipped in a tub of water. But the rest of Kennedy's imaginative tour-de-force for solo trombone (a world premiere, adroitly realized by Steven Parkman) was mesmerizing.

Opening-night opera coverage and other priorities kept me away from Dock Street until Tuesday, but I was there with bells on for Charles Wadsworth's third program of chamber music — where I promptly fell in love with harpist Catrin Finch. A top candidate for festival darling this year, she has opened to us a new world of possibilities for her instrument. Along with Tara O'Connor and her nimble flute, she treated us to a delightful piece by Jacques Ibert and a pair of sultry tango settings by Astor Piazzolla. After Wadsworth and Wendy Chen delivered a somewhat ungracious account of a Mozart piano sonata for four hands, violin wizard Chee Yun joined Chen for a glittering go at Gabriel Faure's fiery A-major violin sonata.

Wednesday's fourth program and Saturday's sixth contained much memorable chamber treasure, too. Finch continued to steal the show — especially in program four, with Carnival of Venice, an amazing showpiece by Felix Godefroid. She and Chee Yun had our jawbones dragging the floor with Saint-Saens' amazing Fantasy for Violin and Harp. The St. Lawrence String Quartet brought us two of birthday-boy Mozart's best strings pieces, with rising viola star Per Rostad lending aid in one of them. Alisa Weilerstein, an incredibly emotive cellist, conspired with Chee Yun for a stunning performance of a classic duet by Johan Halvorsen.

Enter Composer-in-Residence Kenji Bunch in program six, where he wielded his own assured viola in the world premiere of his Drift, a haunting "eventual lullaby" that also featured Todd Palmer on clarinet and Jeremy Denk at the piano. Bunch wrapped up the show with a funky solo viola number that betrayed his not-so-secret passion for bluegrass music.

On to mostly happy happenings from Piccolo Spoleto, the Holy City's wide-ranging sister-festival. Their Early Music Series must be going well, if Tuesday's offering of Bach cello suites at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church is any indication. Cellist Natalia Khoma offered these exalted masterpieces with a fresh brashness that was irresistible. I encountered her later in the week, too — along with violinist Lee-Chin Siow and pianist Volodymyr Vynnytsky — in Friday's gut-wrenching Spotlight Concert Series program offering superbly played chamber pieces by Rachmaninoff.

Another Piccolo plum was Wednesday evening's array of music for string quartet by Rachmaninoff, Haydn and Brahms at Ashley Hall. Five top strings players from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra proved their mettle there. Then there was Saturday's Young Artist Series offering of prime piano concertos. Sakura Myer's Mozart performance was a bit off, thanks to too little rehearsal time (her accompanist arrived late in Charleston). But Sean Kennard, a young pianist with a brilliant future, took total command in the first movement of Chopin's Concerto No. 2 — all I was able to hear before ducking out to catch Kenji Bunch's world premiere at Dock Street.

On the subject of world premieres: Two of them — from respected composers — in less than a week? That's the sort of thing that (at least in this neck of the woods) happens only at Spoleto. We'll see if any more of them pop up in the days to come — and there's still almost a full week of artistic overload yet to go. The gods of great music continue to smile upon us.


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