Mozart in the South: Chucktown's Newest Festival

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Kindly pardon my online absence as of late: Eargasms has lain dormant since before Spoleto … and there seemed little reason to revive it, given Charleston’s annual musical doldrums over the summer. Just about the only local classical event over the past three months was a single concert (GOOD one, too!) by Chamber Music Charleston last July: an afternoon of wonderful string quartets (Beethoven and Ravel) at the old exchange building.

And — though I’m a bit late in reporting this — it’s thanks to CMC that I’m inspired to resurrect my humble blog now, even with more than a week to go before the new concert season kicks off in earnest. My inspiration is the newly instituted Mozart in the South Festival. It ran from last Thursday (September 10) through the weekend, offering three choice public concerts, a Saturday house concert at the Calhoun mansion, and the “Little Mozart Circus” at Marion Square — also on Saturday.

Mozart in the South is the brainchild of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s brilliant Concertmaster, Yuriy Bekker. He came to CMC’s Director, Sandra Nikolayevs, a few months back, with the idea of mounting a chamber music competition. The two of them soon started thinking in terms of a festival instead, and figured out how to make it work. The idea was to end Charleston’s long post-Spoleto classical musical drought a bit earlier than usual, with a long weekend of programs for assorted chamber ensembles and small orchestra. It helps that most of CMC’s musicians also happen to be CSO players — most of whom are back in town after their various summer activities, and itchy to be performing again. That’s good — because Chucktown’s classical fans have been itching to get back to some classy live listening. And it’s hard to go wrong with Mozart, whose music (of course) made up the lion’s share of the festival’s offerings. And you can say the same thing about any of the other choice composers offered.

I made it to three of the five events, beginning with Thursday evening’s chamber concert at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. That one began with Mozart’s delicious Flute Quartet in A, K. 298. Jessica Hull-Dambaugh led the way on flute, in joyful conspiracy with Asako Kremer (violin), Alex Agrest (viola) and Alex Kramer (cello). The first movement was a cunning set of variations on a limpid theme presented by the flute — with the other instruments getting their chance to take the lead and shine in the following three variations. There followed an elegant little minuet, in Wolfgang’s patented “powdered- wigs-and-teacups” style. The final rondo was happy and animated, while never losing its creator’s hallmark grace and polish.

On to Joseph Haydn — who invented the string quartet form as we know it We got a winning rendition of his spiffy String Quartet in G minor, the so-called “Rider” quartet (Op. 74, No. 3). Amos Lawrence and Lauren Paul attended to the violins, with Jill King on viola and Damian Kremer at the cello. This is one of “Papa” Haydn’t miraculous later quartets, kicking off with a robust and virtuosic Allegro that contained some spunky dance-episodes. The soft and flowing Largo movement featured some lovely “singing” from Lawrence’s violin, leading into an uncharacteristically fast and energetic Minuet that offered the composer’s customary warmth and wit. The headlong finale — marked Allegro con brio — was the part that gave the work its nickname. It galloped right along, with lots of nervous energy and quite a few major/minor shifts.

CMC’s woodwind and brass players took over for the evening’s final work: Mozart’s Serenade No. 11 in E-flat, for pairs of clarinets (Charles Messersmith, Gretchen Schneider Roper), bassoons (Kathy St. John, Sandra Nikolayevs) and French horns (Brandon Nichols, Anne Holmi). The piece was played in a version that omitted the pair of oboes normally heard in the work. The opening movement unfolded as a noble march, with intervening tender moments. The following minuet had a stately air to it, contrasting nicely with the pastorally serene central Adagio movement. A second minuet then appeared, jauntier than the first. The final Allegro had an especially festive, almost circus-music air to it. The musicians’ warm and woody tone matched the comfy music perfectly. But next time, I’d like to hear it with the oboes restored.

The crowd’s enthusiastic response left no doubt that our new Mozart in the South festival was off to a great start. Stay tuned: I’ll have two more MITS reviews posted very soon.

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