CSO shines with Debussy, Bartok, and Beethoven 

Chucktown's Triple Threats: Tapping world-class talent in our own backyard

OK, make it two really special, community-spirited Masterworks concerts in a row for the hometown orchestra.

David Stahl and his Charleston Symphony Orchestra teamed up with three of the College of Charleston's top faculty musicians last Saturday at the Gaillard to give us a night worth remembering. It was a fitting follow-up to the CSO's fabulous Carmina Burana extravaganza.

Speaking of that stellar event, I must publicly eat humble pie, having misinformed you about it. Two of the three scheduled soloists — baritone Gary Martin and soprano Lisette Oropesa — cancelled the week before the performance. But you'd never have known that from my review in the October 3 issue. The most excellent 11th-hour replacements — Grant Youngblood and Jane Redding — were duly named in a separate program insert, but I simply didn't pick up on the change (and our competition made the same mistake). My abject apologies to the actual artists, both of whom performed splendidly. And never fear — I got last Saturday's featured soloists right this time.

But before I tell you about them, some other pretty remarkable material came first. Claude Debussy's beloved Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was written in the 1890s, but no less a musical visionary than Pierre Boulez has given it credit for "awakening modern music." Stahl and company delivered a lovely and sensual account: The strings shimmered and the woodwinds sang with sweet delicacy. Principal Jessica Hall-Dambaugh's dulcet flute was the key ingredient.

Then came one of the 20th century's greatest masterpieces: Hungarian genius Bela Bartok's magical Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. It's also a work of daunting complexity that not even the best big-city bands dare to take lightly. The lengthy stage reconfiguration from the previous work gave Maestro Stahl the welcome chance to explain the work to us in detail, helping many of us understand it better.

From its brainy opening fugue through the rarefied "night music" to the manic, folksy finale, the CSO delivered one of the orchestral repertoire's trickiest works with admirable precision and terrific spirit. There were a few rhythmically fuzzy passages here and there — but then, I have yet to hear a perfect performance of this music. Stahl held things together admirably, and the audience's enthusiastic response to the piece was a pleasant surprise.

But what everybody was waiting for came after intermission: Beethoven's Triple Concerto — pretty much the only work of its kind in the standard repertoire. And the CSO didn't have to search far and wide to find stellar soloists. Distinguished pianist Enrique Graf, artist-in-residence at the College of Charleston, runs one of the Southeast's finest piano pedagogy programs. He also brings us artists like Leon Fleisher (one of this year's Kennedy Center honorees) in his International Piano Series (check out my recent Eargasms blog about it). Violinist Lee-Chin Siow heads the college's strings department, and cellist Natalia Khoma teaches her instrument there. All three have glowing international reputations.

And they upheld those reps here. Stahl and his players provided sensitive support as our three soloists deftly exchanged themes and engaged in exalted musical conversation. They realized the music's nobility and passion to near perfection. The only small flies in the ointment were the result of the Gaillard's often spotty acoustics. From my vantage point in the balcony, a few of the cello's softer notes were hard to make out while friends sitting closer to the front reported trouble hearing everything the violin had to say.

We should be very proud to have an orchestra that can play such a wide range of music so well. I defy any community of Charleston's size to show evidence of a better band — or of better local soloists to perform with them.


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