MUSIC OVERVIEW ‌ Pulling Strings 

The CSO's coming season will offer variety and drama, both on and off the stage

These days, orchestras tend to sink or swim according to the quality of their programming. Their product faces ever-stiffer competition from today's avalanche of media, information, and entertainment options, and also from increasingly vibrant alternative music scenes, like chamber and choral music. Choosing the big orchestral selections, the contents of the various series, and finding catchy themes that will grab the public's attention and keep the tickets selling is a huge challenge for any music director.

Nowhere is meeting that challenge more of a concern than for our own financially strapped Charleston Symphony Orchestra. Music Director David Stahl and Resident Conductor Scott Terrell have assured that they put their all into programming the CSO's coming season, its 71st. Whether those efforts pay off or not remains to be seen — but the sheer size of the season makes it worth taking a long look at. Taken as a whole, it's the single biggest creative output from any performing group in the city, and we'll be hearing about it until next May. Bear in mind, though, that planning for some non-series events is still in progress, so there are still a few surprises in store. And don't forget that much of the season's second half depends on the success of current fundraising efforts.

The key consideration of any symphony's artistic program is always going to be demographic awareness: What will keep the gray-haired traditionalists happy? It's an absolute imperative, because they're the ones who account for the lion's share of season subscriptions, and the bulk of major contributions and bequests, too. That means programming lots of crowd-pleasers by dead white European men.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The old masters have always been the reliable "bait" that draws the virgin ears of potential music lovers, as well as the mainstays that keep all but diehard novelty-seekers coming back for more. They don't call them classics for nothing. And the CSO duly delivers this year. The Masterworks series, for starters, features Beethoven's seventh and ninth symphonies, plus his fourth piano concerto.

Also in store is Felix Mendelssohn's complete incidental music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream: a charming rarity, even though we hear excerpts from it all the time. Aside from Beethoven's mighty Ninth Symphony, this season's real blockbusters will be Anton Bruckner's massive fourth symphony (the "Romantic") and Mahler's "Titan" Symphony — his first. We haven't heard Bruckner in Charleston for quite a while. There are two rousing Wagner overtures, too. Casual Classics, the CSO's other main series, adds Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and Mozartiana Suite to the mix ... (no, Wolfi's big birthday year ain't over yet). While the Baroque era gets short shrift this year, we do get to hear Handel's perennially popular Water Music Suite.

Modern crowds seem to have warmed up to much of the best music from the most recent century, too. The main offerings will be Debussy's surging La Mer, Elgar's elegiac Cello Concerto, Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, and Stravinsky's perky Pulcinella Suite. The CSO will observe Dmitri Shostakovich's 100th birthday year via his shattering Tenth Symphony, with its violent portrait of Stalin. We'll get to explore Shostakovich's lighter side in one of the Casual Classics concerts, too.

Most of the Masterworks selections are grouped according to themes, as in October's "Seascapes" concert, which packs in Wagner's Flying Dutchman overture, Debussy's La Mer (The Sea), and Handel's Water Music. November's "Sunrise America" event is an all-American affair featuring Gershwin, Grofe, and Danielpour. January's "Glory and Optimism" pairs Bruckner and Elgar.

How to keep young ears happy, too? There's more serious music being written right now than ever before, and most orchestras feel obliged to bring us the best of it. The industrial-era clatter and atonal angst that used to drive listeners away is out of fashion these days, both for composers and for orchestras with an eye on the bottom line. Today's top composers are back into beauty and new kinds of tuneful accessibility, so exposing audiences to it is more important than ever.

The 2006-07 Masterworks series, programmed by maestro Stahl, is a bit of a disappointment in this regard. It's rich in tempting traditional material, but it offers but a token single contemporary work: Toward a Splendid City, a supremely evocative item by Richard Danielpour.

Thankfully, this is balanced by conductor Terrell's Casual Classics series, filling what he calls the CSO's recent "contemporary music vacuum" with the work of some of our most vital living composers. We'll hear from quite a few of America's leading lights: Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Dominick Argento, and William Bolcom (who ran off with this year's top classical Grammys). Female composers are also on the rise these days, and the music of two leading American ladies, Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon, is also on tap in Terrell's series.

The cost of making all this music figures into any and every programming decision. For most anything written before the middle of the 19th century, the CSO's 46 core musicians can handle it by themselves. But for much of the music that followed — like the scheduled Bruckner, Wagner, and Mahler — they've got to hire a bevy of extra players, called artistic imports, to pull it off. And there's no longer the Savannah Symphony to team up with. That's why the CSO doesn't offer the big-band extravaganzas as often as they did in more prosperous times. In the second half of the season, it's precisely those bigger concerts that'll have to be nixed if the board doesn't make its fundraising goals by the end of the year — they won't be able to afford to import the extra musicians.

And it's not all about big music. Soloists are at least as important. Audiences dote on brilliant pianists, violinists, etc., spinning their virtuosic magic in beloved concertos. But most of the big-name stars come with sky-high fees. Even so, the circuit includes hundreds of superb young rising stars that the CSO can afford. Emerging German cello star Daniel Mueller-Schott (part of Stahl's network of Munich musicians) will do the honors in the Elgar concerto. There'll be some crack younger pianists appearing, too, though we still don't know who they all are.

***

Charleston has a number of outstanding solo-grade musicians in residence; most of them are either the CSO's own principal players or faculty members at the College of Charleston. This season's standout will be the college's terrific new cello teacher, Natalia Khoma, who will perform Tchaikovsky's sublime Rococo Variations. (This is a banner season for cello fans.)

Let's consider what some might call the "gimmicks" — things like Casual Classics' jeans-clad players, the catchy themed concerts, new mini-series, collaborations with comedy teams, and other come-hither trappings. Snobbier sorts will say that such marketing measures cheapen the highbrow classical image. But the plain fact is that if this music is going to continue to be performed in front of audiences, it's got to achieve some sort of relevance to modern life, something that younger, pop-conditioned listeners have trouble finding in the classical scene. They want to hear the music of today — or find fresh ways to connect with older music.

And they don't have a whole lot in common with the tuxedoed greybeards and carefully coiffed blue-hairs who now pay most of the bills ... but who aren't going to live forever. That's why Casual Classics, with its laid-back dress code and a conductor who chats easily with his audience about what makes the music tick, has lately clicked with younger crowds and sold out quite a few concerts. Ka-ching.

This year's CC lineup ought to continue that trend. The Sottile Theatre, the usual home of Casual Classics, is closed for remodeling through the end of 2006, so the series moves to the Charleston Music Hall on John Street. The've divvied it up into two out-of-the-box miniseries, spanning three concerts each. The first, "Breaking the Mold," kicks off in October with "Out on the Veranda," built around Corigliano's Gazebo Dances and Samuel Barber's lovely Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Both works ooze with cozy Americana, setting a chill mood that leads into amiable pieces by Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

The second concert, billed as "What's so Funny?" has side-splitting potential. A Bolcom piece spoofs both Baroque music and the old Punch-and-Judy slapstick tradition. We'll also hear a fractured Mozartean overture to a mock-opera by P.D.Q. Bach (the alias of reigning classical buffoon Peter Schickele), plus a piece from Charles Ives that portrays a completely incompetent band. The remaining music from Stravinsky and Shostakovich is more witty or satirical than laugh-out-loud funny.

"Something Old, Something New" rounds out the mini-series. Ottorino Respighi's beloved first set of Ancient Airs and Dances updates ancient Italian melodies. Solo violin plums from Pablo de Sarasate and Fritz Kreisler follow, and the concert closes with Stravinsky's perky Pulcinella Suite.

The second mini-series, "In Honor of Women," explores both the work of distinguished female composers (until lately, a rare breed) and music that is either inspired by or symbolic of women. "Cutting-Edge Women," the opener, offers a pair of amazing pieces by the aforementioned Tower and Higdon, plus a dandy overture by Mendelssohn's gifted sister Fanny (go ahead and snicker). Other feminine links will presumably be revealed in music from Ravel and Tchaikovsky.

"The Boulanger Effect" explores a fascinating chain of influence. Gabriel Fauré taught the famous Boulanger sisters. Lili, who died at 25, was the real genius, but big sister Nadia went on to become the 20th century's greatest composition teacher, claiming Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzola, and Philip Glass among her roster of students who went on to get famous. We'll hear from all of them (except poor, hitless Nadia). "The Feminine Inspiration" ends the series, celebrating womankind in music from fellas spanning three centuries: Henry Purcell, Haydn, Johann Strauss, and modern master Dominick Argento.

***

This year's Charleston Pops season promises variety and at least the possibility of entertainment in the crossover realm. "Death on the Downbeat" is a sort of murder mystery for orchestra enacted by a group called Magic Circle Mime, set to music from Perry Mason, Casablanca, and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, among others. Word has it that a conductor will get "killed." There's no way to objectively gauge what kind of an event that will be — though Magic Circle Mime has performed similar shows with dozens of the world's best symphonies. But the possibility of it falling flat seems at least as real as the possibility of three mimes and a dinner theatre setup leaving the audience in stitches. There's also "Comedy Tonight," starring local improvisers The Have Nots! in an encore of last year's collaboration, which yielded mixed results.

The remaining events offer different brands of appeal. One evening is devoted to classic Judy Garland and Fred Astaire songs, and a "Celtic Celebration" starring the youthful Irish fiddlers of Na Fidleiri plus a band of Citadel bagpipers. Then there's the holiday-themed "Christmas Spectacular" — though the symphony takes a break from performing Handel's Messiah in this off-year. The season will end with a reprise of last year's well-received competition for local filmmakers.

The only group that's conspicuously absent from this year's program is the CSO Gospel Choir, though I'm told they'll be offering a gospel Christmas show in early December, as well as a Martin Luther King Jr. tribute in January.

The sole remaining official series is "Lowcountry Concerts" — encores of three previous concerts at Wando High School. In fact, the symphony will crank out quite a few concerts not listed in the season brochure, bringing the orchestra to other sites throughout the Lowcountry: nearby communities, retirement homes, and even schools.

The final community angle concerns the CSO's creative involvement of talented individuals and crack ensembles from all over the Lowcountry in their varied music-making, including local soloists and group acts like Na Fidleiri and the Have Nots! Another notable example is the Masterworks season opener: Beethoven's evergreen Ninth Symphony, sporting a mega-choir made up of the CSO's own chorus, plus the CofC Choir and Orangeburg's S.C. State University Choir.

Too many warhorses? I don't think so. There's nary a dud among the Masterworks selections — and the Casual Classics array achieves a nice balance between old and new, with more fresh musical finds than is typical. Stahl speaks of "the infinite variety of great music," and it's obvious that he and his colleagues have knocked themselves out to bring us that. Assuming you have ears, the coming CSO season surely has something special in store for just about everybody. —Lindsay Koob


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