Review: Charleston Symphony Orchestra's season opener 

Better Late Than Never

As I entered the Gaillard Friday evening for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s belated season opener, I wasn’t sure how I’d react. But as I slipped into my seat, a lump formed in my throat when my gaze fell upon the mostly familiar faces of the musicians on stage. It was like the first sight and sound, after a year’s absence, of a cherished old friend. Then the lights went down, and after the usual formalities, the music began. And I knew I had my beloved Charleston Symphony back.

Under the deft and sensitive baton of guest conductor Glen Cortese, the CSO proceeded to treat us to a choice array of music. But before the official program began, our musicians offered a special tribute to their beloved late music director and conductor, David Stahl, a smooth and moving rendition of Edward Elgar’s ultra-sentimental “Nimrod,” the ninth of his wonderful Enigma Variations. And for a few fleeting moments, the fair-sized crowd came together in mourning for their fallen maestro.

Then it was down to the serious but joyful business of the evening’s main fare: three of the finest German creations from the late-romantic era. First up was Johannes Brahms’ best-known musical “joke,” the exuberant Academic Festival Overture. The composer, upon receiving an honorary degree from a leading German university, was obliged to reciprocate with a formal symphonic composition. But the school’s crusty old professors certainly didn’t expect what they got — a high-spirited pastiche of student drinking songs, cunningly woven into a sophisticated and appealing orchestral fabric. I was immediately impressed with the orchestra’s precision and robust sound; Maestro Cortese brought just the right touch of tongue-in-cheek humor to the piece, while paying scrupulous attention to the details of dynamics and expression.

Taking us to intermission was Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, one of several of his orchestral gems that set the late-romantic standard for the “tone poem” form. I was a bit worried about this one, as our orchestra was a good bit smaller than is usually heard with this music. Also, Strauss’ tone poems are fiendishly difficult, calling for an orchestra of real virtuosos — and our band had quite a few freelance subs on stage, especially in the badly depleted strings sections that the CSO’s new contract left them with. But I was pleasantly surprised when Cortese and company tore into the music with passionate, yet accurate abandon. The strings sounded full and burnished, and the woodwinds and brasses glittered. And oh, those magnificent French horns! This music is full of problematic starts, stops, and hairpin turns, and one or two of these abrupt transitions sounded just a bit ragged. But, from the overall confidence and cohesion of their playing, it was obvious that Cortese had prepared his players beautifully. Among several notable solo passages, Mark Gainer’s enchanting oboe stood out.

After halftime, our musicians returned, along with renowned Australian violin virtuoso Adele Anthony, for a glorious go at Brahms’ only violin concerto — one of the true pillars of the concerto repertoire. It’s not one of those flashy, spectacular showpieces that calls primary attention to the soloist, yet it remains a fearsome challenge to even the finest players. And, especially in the extended opening movement, it’s a work of strong contrasts that leavens its moments of brusque drama with passages of surpassing lyric intensity and sweetness.

Anthony delivered a lush and lovely account, lending a distinctly feminine touch to music that many regard as overwhelmingly masculine in nature. She (and Cortese) never let the orchestra dominate, though a few of her lower notes were swallowed up, due in part to the Gaillard’s spotty acoustics. Even at the top of her instrument’s register, her silvery tone never went thin or shrill. In the quieter moments, there was a bewitching delicacy to her playing, and her varied and intermittently “weepy” vibrato melted the hardest hearts (and ears). And she rose admirably to the occasion when the going got heavy, delivering her parts with power and authority. She let out all the stops in the rollicking, Hungarian-toned finale, bringing the house down when it was over. Cortese saw to it that she got smooth and supple orchestral support.

Those (including me) who feared for the CSO’s performance quality in light of recent developments came away from this unforgettable evening reassured that their orchestra remains in fabulous form. It’s so good to have them back.

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