For his debut outing with the ever-reliable Spoleto Festival Orchestra (SFO) at the Sottile Theatre on Tuesday evening, conductor Stefan Asbury couldn't possibly have selected three works better suited to show off the stellar power, precision, and juicy sonorities of this fabulous band of tomorrow's orchestral (and soloist) superstars. Name any of the nation's top 10 or 15 orchestras, and there's a solid chance that there are SFO veterans on board, many in principal positions. The SFO brings together the finest budding young professionals in the business, plus a liberal sprinkling of A-list postgrad students from the cream of America's conservatories and music academies (Juilliard, Curtis, Indiana, Oberlin, etc.). As I've written before, during the 17 days of Spoleto USA, there's probably no orchestra anywhere on earth that contains this much untamed raw talent, as embodied in young musicians for which orchestral music-making has not yet become a matter of daily routine.
Untamed raw talent? Perhaps, more than anything else, that's what makes the SFO so utterly special. That's why Emmanuel Villaume, one of their longtime previous conductors, likened leading them to "holding a tiger by the tail," which, more often than not, resulted in music-making of spontaneous, edge-of your-seat, shiver-me-timbers excitement that you're hardly likely to hear from even the best big-city bands. And, while Spoleto has entrusted them to some excellent conductors since then, nobody (to my ears) since Villaume's departure has realized their full potential in mainstream symphonic music as well as Maestro Asbury did on Tuesday evening.
Russian master Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff was one of his nation's "mighty handful" of five composers who drew their inspiration mainly from native idioms and folk traditions. But he was also one of the world's top handful of brilliant romantic-era orchestrators, able to realize any instrument's full musical potential, either in solo or orchestral capacities. This evening's concert thus began with his Rhapsodie Espagnole: a work of authentic Spanish style and spirit that was no doubt inspired by his travels to Spain during his years as a young Russian naval officer.
One reason Asbury selected it was that (as he told us afterward from the podium), with no customary concerto featured in this program, the piece is chock-full of "concertante"-type passages for both many instrumental soloists as well as sectional ensembles. One thing that Rimsky knew how to do better than just about anybody else was how to showcase just about any instrument (or orchestral section) to best advantage. On top of that, he knew and felt the Spanish musical style better than even some Spaniards did, adding idiomatic touches (like castanets) to the score. Hence this marvelous, five-section tone poem that featured solo action from almost too many of the SFO's top players to keep track of. Clarinet, flute oboe, harp, horn, trumpet, cello, etc. ... we heard them all, and then some. I can't possibly name all the players who got solo bows afterward, but special kudos must go to concertmaster Hye Jin Chang, who gave us some fabulous fiddling.
Under Asbury's deft baton, the music unfolded in all its juicy glory with the Maestro in firm control all the while. Thanks to his meticulous cuing and his seemingly mystical connection to his musicians, he and the orchestra delivered playing of great precision, detail, dynamic range, and subtle nuance. His interpretation was remarkable for its sense of line and overall grasp of the musical "big picture."
Then it was on to the Hungarian genius Bela Bartok's splendid orchestral suite from his ballet, The Wooden Prince. Inspired by a fairy tale of a prince who appears both in the flesh and as a wooden replica, it was one of his first big successes, despite its rhythmic complexity and then-adventurous harmonics. It also marked his emerging mastery in writing for large orchestra. Cast in seven sections, the music is laced with the folk tunes that he had collected during expeditions throughout central Europe as a young man. Like the preceding piece, this is also music that shows off many of its players in solo passages, as in the clarinet's portrayal of the princess: one of the ballet's main characters. Again, Asbury led a technically pristine and passionate performance, bowling over even those in the capacity audience who often have a hard time "getting" Bartok.
After intermission, Asbury and company treated their enraptured listeners to a lush and lovely rendition of the Symphonic Dances by the master Russian composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. Written just three years before he died, it's his musical swan song, containing quotes from quite a few of his earlier works. Even though he was a contemporary of Bartok (one of the 20th century's early "bad boys" and of other "radical" musicians like Stravinsky), Rachmaninoff remained an unapologetic romanticist, famed (and reviled by some) for his music's sweet melodic richness as well as his typically Russian pathos and emotional intensity.
Our accomplished players again rendered the music to opulent perfection, in episodes ranging from soft delicacy to slashing power and grandeur. I was particularly taken with the way Asbury negotiated the central Andante movement's pensive waltz, holding his marvelous minions together beautifully while applying a greater degree of rubato (subtle variations in tempo) than I've ever heard before in this piece. With the help of the solo saxophonist's brooding (and gorgeous) delivery (I didn't get his name), the music's aura of melancholic resignation, signaling its creator's sense of his own mortality, came across wonderfully well. That sense was emphatically reinforced by the application of the fatalistic Dies irae theme in the work's fabulous finale. At the movement's sustained closing gong-stroke, the happy crowd jumped to their feet as if catapulted, voicing their appreciation in their ecstatically stormy standing O.
We know the SFO will be back, but will Maestro Asbury return to us for future festivals? There probably wasn't a single orchestral music fan in the audience who doesn't fervently hope so.