by Lindsay Koob
Charleston’s newest classical festival shifted both venues and gears last Friday evening (September 11), in a terrific program of orchestral music at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul. Only one of the program’s three works was by Mozart — but it turned out to be the evening’s highlight. One fascinating aspect of the evening is that the small orchestra (around 30 players) — with members drawn mainly from the Charleston Symphony — performed without a conductor. They played, in effect, as a large chamber ensemble — and they managed to avoid all of the many potential pitfalls that can occur when that many players don’t have a baton or a single leader’s interpretive vision to keep them — quite literally — “on the same sheet of music.”
The opening work was the lovely Élégie movement from P.I. Tchaikovsky’s radiant Serenade for Strings: one of my favorites among the Russian master’s smaller-scale creations. It was offered in meditative tribute to the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After a somber introductory passage, the melancholic main theme emerged, gradually working up to a keening climax of grief and despair. The orchestra’s strings sounded especially rich and luscious in the cathedral’s reverberant acoustic. Since Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker’s arrival a few years back, the CSO’s strings have never sounded better — and this was one of their supreme moments.
Then it was on to Viennese composer Franz Schubert’s lovely and bucolic Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, written when the composer was only nineteen, and still in search of his mature voice. It was an ideal selection for this event, scored for one of the smallest orchestras Schubert ever employed (no clarinets, trumpets or timpani — and only a single flute). Despite its obvious models — the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn — Schubert’s unmistakably sweet stamp was there to be savored. I think it's Schubert's first brush with orchestral greatness.
The happy, almost elfin opening allegro radiated charm and an aura of contentment. The following Andante movement was wistful and reflective, with elements of both mystery and gentle Viennese “Gemütlichkeit.” The minuet’s dramatic opening resolved into delightful, dance-like passages, leading into the finale’s sunny gaiety. The orchestra sounded accomplished and well-rehearsed, with careful interpretive shadings and uniformly-realized dynamics. Concertmaster Bekker did some adroit cuing from his chair as he played. With music like this (and musicians like these), who needs a conductor? But there’s a lot of material out there that would likely suffer without one.
The final number — Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488 — was indeed the evening’s crowning glory. Solo honors fell to Andrew Armstrong, whose many local appearances (mostly during Piccolo Spoleto) have made him a perennial Charleston favorite. And I'm proud to claim him as my friend: he faithfully supported my Sunday Spotlight concert series at my old Millenniuum Music digs, appearing in recital there whenever he was in town.
Under his flashing fingers, the opening Allegro movement simply sparked, with some episodes of exquisite grace and delicacy. Armstrong composed his own cadenza, a cunning little solo fantasia that added a few romantic touches and harmonic surprises to Mozart’s themes. The central Andante movement is one of Mozart’s loveliest and most songful, its main theme descending from on high as if from heaven; the orchestra’s woodwinds sang with particular sweetness. The Finale was pure, twinkling fun. Armstrong's glittering fingerwork and warm panache fit his deftly-done orchestral framework like a glove. My only minor complaint is purely a matter of acoustics: the same reverberant, high-ceilinged Cathedral sound that helped make the strings sound so luscious tended to blur some of Armstrong’s especially rapid or delicate pianistic filigree here and there.
Armstrong and friends had a grand old time serving it up to us, too. It seemed an intimate, en famille affair, as Andy adroitly led his orchestral sidekicks from the keyboard. Have you ever noticed how many musicians smile beatifically when they play Mozart? Such was the case here — but there were even more happy faces among the delighted audience.