NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND ‌ Mixed Blessings 

Two weeks of classical variety

After a brief post-holiday breather, our usual cluttered classical season is back in full swing -- and I'm courting a hernia trying to keep up with it all. Three recent shows go a long way in demonstrating the range in kind and quality across the varied local scene.

On Jan. 20, the Charleston Concert Association presented its annual opera at the Gaillard. This time, it was W. A. Mozart's masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, in a fair-to-middling Bulgarian touring production. Sets were spare, functional, and apparently unfinished (with raw lumber showing); the period costumes were realistic. Both orchestra and chorus were small and scrappy, but spirited, and all the lead voices were at least adequate. I won't throw a list of mouth-mangling Bulgarian names at you, but several (like those singing the roles of Susanna, Figaro, and Cherubino) were pretty good.

A few perfection-seeking audience members stalked out after Act I, shaking their heads. Let's face it: Some of us first cut our operatic teeth in major-metro houses, and the rest of us have been spoiled silly by Spoleto's first-rate productions. How can a B-grade touring outfit possibly stack up? Still, there are lots of locals who've never seen Figaro, and here was their chance to experience it decently done. The question I always ask myself is, Was I entertained? And, for most of us who were there, the answer would have to be yes. Hey, it surely beats no opera at all between festivals.

Overall quality is much easier to gauge when there's only one musician at work, as in Marina Lomazov's showy recital on Jan. 23 that opened the College of Charleston's dependable International Piano Series. Lomazov, from Ukraine, is a Juilliard graduate who teaches at USC in Columbia. Tall and elegant, she swooped over the keyboard like a beautiful bird of prey, drawing rippling cascades of sound out of her Steinway in the opening pieces from Debussy's first book of Images. Then we heard some rare but pleasing miniatures from former countryman Rodion Shchedrin. She finished with passionate, big-Russian readings of Chopin's dramatic Ballade No. 4 and the shimmering Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante.

The Charleston Music Hall rang to the refined sounds of the Charleston Symphony on Saturday the 27th, in their first Casual Classics outing of the New Year. For a welcome change, there was absolutely no outside noise pollution to mar the gentle plucked-string passages of Respighi's first set of Ancient Airs and Dances. And the subtle rhythmic workings and wit of Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite shone through unscathed. Conductor Scott Terrell handles a crowd as well as he does his musicians: His chatty remarks and brief demonstrations helped us all get deeper into the music.

But perhaps the best reason for being there was to hear Yuriy Bekker -- the CSO's new Concertmaster -- strut his solo stuff for the first time in a pair of fave showpieces. The over-the-top passion and panache of Sarasate's Gypsy Airs contrasted nicely with the melancholic schmaltz of Love's Pain, by Kreisler, and Bekker tossed them both off with golden tone and nimble fingers. Welcome, Yuriy. Let's hope you still have an orchestra to play with in seasons to come.


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