Star violinist Alexander Kerr 

A Hero Returns: An ex-Concertmaster's triumph

I drifted home last Saturday night on cloud nine after "Two Pillars" — the latest of the Charleston Symphony's Masterworks concerts at the Gaillard — with exalted echoes of vintage Beethoven and Brahms still ringing in my ears (and soul).

It was one of the most memorable concerts I've ever heard from our hometown band.

But before I wrap it up for you, here's something you may not know, namely that the CSO has a national rep as one of America's foremost "springboard" orchestras. By that I mean that many of the nation's tip-top conservatory grads begin very distinguished careers here. The CSO fills vacancies via national auditions, and many of America's best flock to them, hoping to refine their craft and learn the orchestral repertoire under a world-renowned conductor like David Stahl.

Sure, there are many wonderful "core" musicians who've chosen to remain with the CSO over the long haul. But many of their brightest lights inevitably move up the ladder to more glamorous (and better-paying) ensembles. Dozens of CSO alumni now play for the finest big-city bands. CSO experience is a big feather in any young musician's cap. That's also why Chucktown can claim a better orchestra than just about any other community of its size.

Ah, there's the rub. Star violinist Alexander Kerr ­— Saturday's soloist in Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major — started off as the CSO's concertmaster, from 1993 to 1995. Then he got snapped up by Cincinnati's esteemed orchestra for two seasons before winning (at age 26) the exalted post of concertmaster for Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, rated just last year as Europe's number two orchestra (ahead of the Berlin Philharmonic!). And now he's the youngest-ever strings prof at Indiana University — while coping with a busy international schedule as soloist and chamber musician who plays (and records) with the cream of the global A-list. Among local heroes who made good, Kerr (pronounced "car") leads the pack.

Anyone who was there Saturday knows why. Kerr and friends realized this musical monument with superb skill and lyrical sweetness. He's not one of those flashy, self-indulgent fiddlers whose playing calls attention to itself instead of the music. Anyone who knows the work of Aaron Rosand — his teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia — could hear his mentor's influence: This was playing of deep profundity and glowing, old-world elegance, yet not one jot of the music's inherent majesty and passion was lost.

Soloist, orchestra and conductor were in perfect accord from start to finish. Oh, and I almost forgot to tell you about the manic delivery of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture that began the program. Stahl's moving pre-concert reading of the master's tortured "Heiligenstadt Testament" — reflecting his anguish over his encroaching deafness — helped us grasp where the music was coming from.

You might be interested to know that Kerr, between solo interludes, also played the "tutti" violin passages along with the orchestra: a practice he says brings him in closer accord with his fellow strings players. Also, let me correct a bit of misinformation that's been circulating: Kerr's violin is not a Stradivarius, as we've been told. It's rather the 1743 Guarneri del Gesu that Isaac Stern played early in his career. I wish I had room here to give you the whole story behind it.

After intermission came Brahms' Symphony No. 4, a work of searing drama, romantic sweep, and edge-of-your-seat excitement. The final passacaglia movement is a miracle of headlong drive and brain-teasing complexity. And our classy players couldn't have made it more thrilling — Stahl's relentless reading positively crackled. The well-reinforced strings (seven double basses) sounded incredibly smooth and full. Stahl's "scooping" gestures from the podium coaxed throbbing gushes of lush sound from them. Never mind the bobbled note or two from the brasses and woodwinds. No performance is perfect. This was music to exult joyfully in. And who should appear again onstage to play along but Alex Kerr, sitting towards the back of the first violins. I asked him about it afterwards,

"I had to," he said. "It's absolutely my favorite symphony."


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