Yuriy Bekker and Friends: the latest from the CSO

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Friday evening marked the opening event of the Charleston Symphony’s newest concert series — at Mt. Pleasant’s spacious Christ Episcopal Church. The series is called Yuriy Bekker and Friends: a sequence of several musician-led programs featuring smaller-scale orchestral and even chamber works that the CSO can stage effectively at smaller venues (mostly churches) throughout the tri-county area. The evening’s program was entitled “Influence of Beethoven.”

“Musician-led” — at least in this concert — meant that the CSO performed without a conductor. They’ve done that before — and with success — as recently as September’s Mozart in the South festival (scroll down for reviews). In effect, they functioned here as a BIG chamber ensemble — relying on its players’ superior musicianship and careful preparation. Going sans conductor would invite disaster for most orchestras; keeping forty-plus musicians in perfect technical and interpretive synch is no easy matter. But, given the kinds of quality musicians that the CSO can claim — and a musician of Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker’s rare abilities to rehearse them — the sky’s the limit. Well, almost.

Everybody sounded fine in the opening selection: the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. It’s a brisk and frisky number that — after its somber, Haydn-esque opening passages — proceeds to bubble and bounce through the rest of its course, with plenty of wit and high spirits. As with most first efforts, Beethoven hadn’t yet found his true voice when he wrote this one — but genius is genius, even in its early stages. There were plenty of chances to go wrong in this tricky score — but my ears detected no flaws to speak of.

After the brasses and woodwinds departed the stage, the remaining strings (plus harp) delivered the most delicious bit of Gustav Mahler’s searing Symphony No. 5 — a searing and fateful work that was definitely inspired in part by Beethoven. But not this part: the limpid and passionate fourth movement, known simply as the “Adagietto.” It’s always been the composer’s single most popular symphonic movement, and is often played by itself. Mahler — after dragging us through a lot pain and angst in the opening movements — counts his blessings here, in a sweeping and honey-sweet love-song to his wife Alma. As I’ve written before, this is music that makes you wonder if anybody’s ever loved YOU that much.

And it’s the only movement from this giant symphony that the CSO could possibly have given us here, considering their limited numbers. The CSO’s strings sounded smooth and luscious —and Interim Executive Director Kathleen Wilson (on leave as the CSO’s harpist) forgot her administrative duties long enough to get back to some sweet orchestral action. From my up-front seat in the second pew, I was just a dozen feet or so behind her, with a clear view of her music-stand. I was thus able to follow the music from her dog-eared personal copy of the harp score … which was keyed to the first violins’ melody line. Fascinating!

This piece was also the evening’s only number that could’ve used a conductor — as Bekker himself commented to me afterwards. Not that the players were out-of-synch or sloppy-sounding; it was more a matter of emotional focus. This is Mahler at his most tender and passionate, and it’s hard to get the piece’s piercing pangs of romance just right without the single-hearted sentiment and interpretive vision of a sensitive conductor. Yet Bekker had obviously prepared his colleagues well — and the music was still a joy to behold.

The final two works were seldom-heard arrangements of well-known pieces. The first was a reduction of Richard Strauss’s blockbuster orchestral work, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, for a quintet of mixed instruments — and the other was one of Beethoven’s superb middle-period string quartets (the Op. 95), in Mahler’s arrangement for string orchestra. Five accomplished CSO members did the honors in the Strauss: Bekker on violin, plus Debra Sherill’s French horn, guest-artist Edward Burn’s bassoon, Charles Messersmith’s clarinet, and Edward Allman’s double bass. While certain parts of the orchestral original were left out, the mischievous (and tricky) music was perky, well-played, and fun to hear.

The final work stands as one of Beethoven’s best-loved string quartets: a lofty and complex piece that still remains more accessible to most listeners than his far-out, metaphysical final quartets. Mahler’s orchestration sounded quite lush and lovely, while doing full justice to Beethoven’s brainy and very personal musical expression. The CSO’s trusty strings section was dead-on, delivering the often tricky music with skill and aplomb.

Christ Church’s roomy “new” main building, built in the past decade (there’s also a historic chapel that dates back centuries), can be a somewhat sharp and boomy-sounding edifice, as the performers noted during their rehearsals. But the fair-sized crowd that filled the pews tended to soften the acoustics, leaving a clear, sharp acoustic that let you hear everything … kind of like what you get at the Memminger Auditorium (where the CSO’s next Backstage Pass concert will be heard: Nov 5 at 7:00 p.m.).

You can catch the same program at 4:00 p.m. tomorrow (Sunday), at Summerville’s Church of St. John the Beloved. Tix are $15 ($5 for students). BE there — it’ll be well-worth the trip.

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