CSO Has some Fun … (at least more than usual)

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Thursday’s second outing of the Charleston Symphony’s laid-back Backstage Pass series at Memminger Auditorium offered a very unusual and highly memorable program, entitled “Both Sublime and Ridiculous,” in which humor was often a key element. The unifying theme of the evening was the music of W A Mozart. Our guest conductor was an old friend: Stuart Malina, now music director of the Harrisburg Symphony, was the CSO’s associate conductor for four years in the 1990’s — and it was good to see him back on the podium in front of many of his former associates. He delivered informal and informative remarks before each selection, helping his audience to appreciate the music more fully.

Malina and friends kicked off the evening with Mozart’s delightful Serenata Notturna. In many ways, it’s a typical example of his half-dozen serenades that were written mostly for his royal patron’s many snooty social events. But, in other ways, this one’s different. With only 3 movements (most have around twice that), it’s one of the shortest serenades — and it’s orchestrated in a unique way, with a string quartet performing concertante-style from within its supporting orchestra.

Mozart may well have been playing a joke on his royal boss with music that seems to poke fun at the stylized pomposity of court life. The players brought out the music’s mock-dignity and tongue-in-cheek satire very nicely as the quartet wove its way in and out of the contrasting orchestral fabric. Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker was given carte-blanche to ham it up in his solo violin cadenza — and he had his audience tittering as he dredged up bits and pieces of other Mozart faves, as well as a snippet from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Mozart — a notorious (and sometimes crude) buffoon — would’ve loved it!

Next came the sublime part: a modern work based on Mozart’s heavenly motet, Ave Verum Corpus. One of his final works, it’s a marvel of subtle and achingly beautiful harmonic shifts. While it was written for choir, the CSO delivered a sweet and touching instrumental version of it.

Enter emerging American composer Daniel Kellogg, who was present to introduce his Mozart’s Hymn to the substantial crowd — a short work for sixteen strings that was commissioned by a French orchestra a few years ago. The players laid down a mostly soft and shimmering bed of string sonorities, with clusters of instruments drifting to the fore, then receding. Before long, Mozart’s lovely harmonies began peeking out from within the hazy orchestral tapestries … absolutely magical!

As you’ll soon see, the final two program items were linked, too — besides the ongoing association to Mozart. Meanwhile, Malina and company proceeded to tear into the bustling Finale of Josef Haydn’s Symphony No. 45. Its nickname, the “Farewell symphony,” comes from the not-so-subtle symphonic hint that Haydn built into the piece. His musicians had been kept overlong by their royal employer at his isolated summer estate in Hungary, and morale was low. So Haydn (who loved a good joke) slowed his musicians down to a sedate Adagio, then had them gradually stop playing one or two at a time, take their music and leave the stage (the boss sent them home the next day). You don’t often hear this one with the crowd giggling as the musicians re-enact the original joke.

The connection wasn’t apparent until the final work, Moz-Art a-la Haydn, by modern Russian/German composer Alfred Schnittke. It featured a pair of solo violinists (Alan Molina and Adda Kridler), backed up by separate mini-string orchestras with a single double-bass between them . We first heard — in total darkness — the players noodling around with various theme-snippets from an obscure Mozart fragment — then the lights came back up suddenly, just as everybody came together in a big tremolo crash. Then they took off again, in what amounts to pure musical slapstick … as Malina pointed out in his remarks, almost like what you hear in a cartoon soundtrack. The soloists took part in the musical mayhem, with comic exchanges and one of them (Kridler) playing while de-tuning her instrument. Towards the end — just as in the Haydn — the musicians gradually stopped playing, meandering off the stage a few at a time as the lights go down, until there’s only the conductor beating time to the single double-bass. Funny stuff!

It’s good to know that serious musicians (both composers and performers) can let their hair down now and then … and it’s even better to hear a classical crowd laugh out loud.

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