Resigning Maestro and his cherished orchestra deliver a final memorable concert 

Sweet Swan Song

A capacity crowd packed the Gaillard Auditorium Sunday to bid farewell to Maestro Emmanuel Villaume as he showed off the magnificent orchestra that he's largely responsible for building. On the playbill — in this, his final Spoleto Festival Concert — were three prime Germanic masterpieces.

We first heard operatic master Richard Wagner's best-known orchestral work, the Siegfried Idyll. This tender, love-drenched music was written as a birthday (and Christmas) gift for his wife Cosima, who had recently given birth to their son, Siegfried. That name also belongs to the title hero of one of the four operas that make up his Ring of the Niebelungs cycle, and so much of the music is built on themes that attend Siegfried in his operatic guise.

The Idyll was originally written for a small band of 16 musicians who sneaked into the Wagner home at dawn on Christmas morning of 1870, took their positions on the stairs and began to play. Cosima was "stunned and delighted," as was the famed German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who later wrote that the music had left him in tears, along with the rest of the household. Some of us were close to tears, too, as Villaume and company delivered a soft and dreamy performance, filling it with more potent — yet gentle — emotion than I've ever heard before in this music. The players were well-nigh perfect: the strings' plush tone was a particular delight to the ear.

Next we thrilled to a riveting and rosy-sounding performance of W.A. Mozart's Symphony No. 35, the so-called "Haffner" symphony, a work that grew in part out of his well-known earlier "Haffner" Serenade that was written in honor of a family friend bearing the name. This one is the first of Mozart's fabulous final six symphonies that we most often hear from him. Misinformed purists might harp on the fact that Mozart generally did most of his symphonic writing for a much smaller orchestra than we got here, but, in fact, Mozart loved big, juicy-sounding bands: like the recently expanded Viennese orchestra of his day (40 strings!).

The first movement opened with a striking theme in rising octaves, setting us up for the powerful and vigorous music that followed. The succeeding Andante movement took us into more serene and ethereal realms, and the energetic Menuetto movement offered an especially deep and reflective trio movement. Villaume and company took the headlong finale at an exhilarating pace. I wonder if I've ever heard juicier-sounding Mozart — except maybe from the Vienna Philharmonic? But even those vaunted musicians never gave this music the kind of robust spirit and excitement that we heard here on Sunday.

After intermission, our musicians returned for a precise and perky go at Ludwig van Beethoven's next-to-last Symphony No. 8: a glittering and finely chiseled work that has never gotten the credit that it deserves. History records that Beethoven was annoyed that his seventh symphony — a much more popular piece — kept the No. 8 tucked in its shadow right from the start, keeping it from ever really catching the public's fancy (even though musicologists and other composers never stopped singing its praises). Even now, its saucy and subtle wit and masterly construction simply evade many listeners, who no doubt come to it expecting the kind of heaven-storming drama and lyric intensity that we hear in most of his other symphonies.

Villaume and his players delivered a gleaming and beautifully tailored account of this "little symphony in F" (as Beethoven called it) that left absolutely nothing to be desired. The lively opening movement gave way to an absolutely charming Allegretto section that's packed with sneaky little tongue-in-cheek touches — seemingly poised to take the listener in directions that never quite materialize. The jocular mood continues in the Menuetto, leading into the kinetic romp of a finale. Again, I don't think I've ever heard this one in a more scintillating and totally satisfying concert performance.

The audience showed its love big-time, exploding in an electric standing O; I lost track of how many times he was called back to the stage. No doubt anticipating such heartfelt adulation, he gifted us with two encores. The first was Mozart's bubbly overture to the Marriage of Figaro, the opera that marked Villaume's debut Spoleto performance 20 years ago (and also launched the brilliant operatic career of superstar soprano Renee Fleming). The second was the popular Intermezzo from Mascagni's short opera, Cavalleria Rusticana — containing what is definitely one of the most gushingly romantic tunes ever written.

But let's not say goodbye to our beloved Maestro for good ... how about the Germans' expression, "Auf Wiedersehen" (until we see each other again) instead? That's because Villaume has promised to return to the festival for guest-gigs as he is able. Emmanuel, we can hardly wait.

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