CSO and Pianist Sean Kennard Deliver “Heroic Beethoven”

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I’d been looking forward keenly to Saturday evening’s Masterworks program at the Gaillard — and I wasn’t disappointed. The Charleston Symphony — led by their Maestro, David Stahl — took the stage at their core strength of under fifty musicians. While modern audiences expect larger bands, a smaller ensemble works well for Beethoven, who himself often had to make do with orchestras of similar size in his day.

The choice program duplicated one of the very first orchestral concerts I ever attended — as a starry-eyed fourteen-year-old, growing up in Vienna, Austria. No matter that the orchestra was the fabled Vienna Philharmonic, with famed pianist Jörg Demus at the keyboard. At the time, I had no idea of the quality of what I was hearing; all I knew was that I loved it — and wanted more. Knowing the music much better nearly fifty years later, I enjoyed the CSO’s rendition just about as much — even though the thrill of discovery was missing.

The overture to Egmont, the opening work, is a stormy and driven work, full of drama and foreboding. Stahl and company delivered a white-hot, feverish rendition with surprisingly full tone from the CSO’s bare-bones string section. Some bobbled trumpet notes in the frantic coda were my only small cause for complaint.

Then came what I was looking forward to the most: the noble and mysterious Piano Concerto No. 3, in the dark key of C minor. Of the composer’s five piano concertos, it’s the first that can claim true greatness. Pianist Sean Kennard — a Curtis Institute graduate and keyboard guru Enrique Graf’s star protégé at the College of Charleston in recent years — delivered an altogether accomplished and patrician account, with all of the elegance and lyrical intensity that the music demands — plus pearly, singing tone.

The dramatic and brooding opening movement went very well, between Kennard’s expressive playing on top of the sensitive and subtle support from his orchestra. The only problem came in a muted arpeggio passage, where Kennard (playing, as usual, from memory) seemed to lose his place for a measure or two before recovering nicely. The songful slow movement was pure magic, and the bustling finale ended the work on a happy note.

The evening’s magnum opus awaited us following halftime. As with the concerto, Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony (No. 3) was his first truly great example in the genre. In fact, as a friend of mine I spoke to after the concert commented, symphonic writing was never the same after this revolutionary work appeared. Stahl and company made the most of the work’s predominantly high spirits, with sonorous work from the strings and sweetly singing woodwinds. Again, there were a few small flubs from the trumpets (whose players had been through a very long day) — though they were hardly enough to derail the overall performance. The deep and forceful fugato episodes in the second and fourth movements were distinct highlights. After the opening Allegro con brio’s vibrant solemnity and the slow movement’s tragic funeral march, the happy scherzo and almost frivolous finale came as witty and upbeat relief.

I’ve never been able to get enough Beethoven — but this extravaganza definitely sent me home on cloud nine.

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