CSO Shines in Backstage Pass Season Opener

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The Charleston Symphony’s informal Backstage Pass series opened its new season with style and panache last Thursday at the Memminger Auditorium. The varied program — conducted by Maestro David Stahl — framed a world premiere performance of a striking new work from a distinguished local composer with pleasing Russian and French classics.

Things got going with minor Russian master Anatoly Liadov’s Eight Russian Folk Songs. As Stahl told us in his chatty introductory remarks, Liadov wasn’t a particularly original composer: he tended to write in very typical Russian musical language, and didn‘t hesitate to “borrow” other composer’s pet compositional tricks. Still, his music is highly appealing and well-crafted — as Stahl (who has a special feel for the Russian composers) and his crack players proceeded to prove. Highlights included the aching solo cello melody from ‘Plaintive Song,’ courtesy of acting Principal Norbert Lewandowski. The “Humorous Song” was a delightful romp, featuring Regina Helcher Yost’s scampering piccolo.

Our artists then treated us to the first-ever performance of Three Latin Rivers, a new work by local composer and College of Charleston professor Edward Hart. The work offers musical impressions of three widely scattered rivers flowing past (or through) Latin nations that the composer visited during recent sabbatical travels. According to Hart — who was present to guide us through the music — the first movement sought to capture the moods and flavors of Portugal’s Rio Douro, specifically where it flows through the city of Porto: the home of Port wine, and one of the hotbeds of Fado, the nation’s signature vocal musical form. The music adroitly evoked Fado’s sense of subdued passion, complete with pizzicato textures reminiscent of the Portuguese guitar (the quintessential Fado instrument).

The second movement was a subtle musical vision of the arid desert expanses along our familiar Rio Grande, separating our nation from Mexico. It came across as mostly a soft smorgasbord of sound depicting the descent of darkness along the river; it was particularly remarkable for its profusion of unusual string sonorities — including eerie cello glissandi and glassy-sounding “ponticelli” tremolos effects. The final movement was inspired by the Rio de la Plata, the river separating Uruguay and Argentina: perhaps the two most European-influenced nations of South America. So, think musical melting-pot: the music unfolds as a scintillating clash of musical cultures, as passionate Hispanic themes compete with a more genteel Germanic waltz before compromising on (sort of) a tango. Hart told me afterwards that he was thrilled to hear his music performed so well — and I’m here to tell you that the audience was blessed to share the experience.

The concert came to a delightful close with the polish and elegance of French impressionist Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (the tomb of Couperin), based largely on the music of the French Baroque master named in the title. More a work of textures and blends than of melody, it consists of four dance movements that enchant with their often blithe and breezy moods and sense of fairly-tale whimsy and wonder. The energetic finale is a marvel of cheeky French attitude.

The piece is also devilishly difficult to play well — and our orchestra delivered a suave and saucy performance that reminded me yet again how fortunate we are to have an orchestra of such quality in our midst. Stahl and company captured the music’s often elusive subtleties beautifully. The Memminger auditorium — refurbished just season before last — seems an ideal venue for the series: the acoustic is crystal-clear (you can hear everything), and the ambience is quite cozy and intimate, with no listener more than 40 or 50 feet from the conductor’s podium.

If you haven’t yet sampled the delights of the Backstage Pass series, you should. What’s not to like? These laid-back Thursday evening events offer eclectic, smaller-scale orchestral classics in an informal setting, with both players and audiences encouraged to “dress down.” The concerts begin at 7:00 p.m., and rarely run longer than an hour or so. The audience usually gets friendly, down-to-earth mini-lectures about the music before it’s performed, along with instrumental demonstrations — greatly enhancing the typical concertgoer’s understanding and appreciation of the music. There are three more attractive series programs to go this season, so give ‘em a try!

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