Mozart in the South Goes Out with a Bang

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The MITS grand finale last Sunday evening at St. Matthew’s Lutheran also turned out to be the debut of Yuriy Bekker — Saturday’s MITS Concertmaster — as conductor in a full program of varied classics for small orchestra. Bekker and friends first treated us to English composer Gustav Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, for string orchestra. Written for the orchestra of the St. Paul’s School for girls, where Holst was employed for most of his life, the four-movement work is based on English and Scottish folk-themes.

The first movement’s lively jig gave way to the ostinato movement’s whimsical, pizzicato-laced melody. The Intermezzo episode began with a modal melody over plucked strings, leading into a chugging sequence. The final “Dargason” movement began with a festive Scottish dance, gradually folding the famous “greensleeves” melody into the lively orchestral fabric. On top of impeccable playing, Bekker drew lovely string tone and texture from his wonderful musicians.

Horns and winds then joined the strings for the evening’s sole Mozart work: his marvelous Symphony No. 29 in A-Flat. Written in 1774, while the composer was still in his teens, it’s regarded as one of his first true symphonic masterpieces. Despite its major key, the opening Allegro came across as serious and propulsive. Ingenious dotted rhythms lent a solemn eloquence to the lovely muted strings in the slow movement, and brought exceptional energy to the jolly minuet. The miraculous finale — with its hunting calls and brash, upward-dashing scales — brought the house down. Again, Yuriy got precise and passionate playing from his colleagues, doing full justice to the music of the master.

The evening ended — all too soon — with P. I. Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, another of his smaller-scale masterpieces. Originally written as a string sextet after an inspiring sojourn in Florence, Italy (one of many trips he made there), we heard its meatier version for string orchestra here. It’s hardly a programmatic musical travelogue, though its sunny mood and Italianate aura reflect the composer’s great fondness for the country. The music remains happy and lyrical through the first two movements, but takes a melancholy turn in the following scherzo. The animated finale, with its folksy themes and contrapuntal elaborations, sounded better — by far — in its orchestral version.

Yuriy — a passionate musical romantic if there ever was one — wrung every drop of rich romantic sentiment out of the evocative score, while drawing incredibly lush sound from his accomplished team of players. Now we know he’s a first-rate conductor, in addition to being our finest resident violin virtuoso.

Thus, with a bang, ended Charleston’s newest arts festival. It was a great way to ease our musical public back into the new arts year after a long, musically barren summer. My sole regret is that — as with first efforts everywhere — the word apparently didn’t get out as well as it could have. Attendance at all three events I attended was by no means poor — but it could have been significantly better. A more aggressive publicity campaign next year should help this most worthy festival draw the crowds it deserves.

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