Memorable Masterworks Concert Marks CSO's New Year

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A fair crowd braved Saturday evening’s blustery downpours to support the Charleston Symphony’s first Masterworks concert of the New Year at the Gaillard. The Program — entitled simply “Yuriy” — gave our esteemed hometown band another shot at showcasing Yuiy Bekker, their brilliant concertmaster. While they were at it, they recalled yet again the classy luster that the orchestra brings to the Lowcountry’s cultural scene.

The evening’s program — featuring especially beloved cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire — began with the ultra-famous overture to William Tell, one of Italian master Gioachino Rossini’s operatic masterpieces. Despite the music’s long-standing cross-cultural association with radio hero, “the Lone Ranger,” there’s a lot more to the piece than the glorious final section that everybody can at least attempt to hum. Maestro David Stahl and his superb musicians proceeded to show us how it’s done.

The opening passage is a lovely chorale for the cello section, led here by the sonorous solo work of acting principal Norbert Lewandowski: his golden tones were a treat, though the Gaillard’s spotty acoustics kept me from hearing some of his softer notes. Then everybody got whipped up into a frenzy with the supremely evocative “storm” scene: bravo to those athletic trombones (but where was the tuba?). On to the serene pastoral interlude, with suggestions of birdcalls and butterflies from Jessica Hull-Dambaugh’s flute, twittering blithely over Christine Worsham’s smoothly flowing English horn. Finally, a blazing fanfare from the trumpets announced the mad dash to the finish line. Not just any strings section can cleanly articulate the headlong, hard-driving theme Rossini assigned them — especially at the relentless tempo that Stahl maintained throughout. But our musicians rose to the challenge, delivering a performance to remember. The above-named players all got well-deserved solo bows.

From there, it was on to the evening’s centerpiece: German romantic master Felix Mendelssohn’s evergreen Violin Concerto in E Minor, no doubt one of the two most popular violin concertos we have (the other being Tchaikovsky’s). Bekker pulled out all the passionate stops in his performance, with syrupy-sweet and touching renditions of the first movement’s main themes. Swooping adroitly into many of his notes, he wrung every drop of aching sentiment out of his flowing melodies. The same applies to his glowing work in the second movement, with violin "singing" of honeyed beauty as he laid down his sad song of wistful yearning.

But the finale brought the composer’s hallmark sense of perky, elfin mischief to bear — with the bright and playful theme that seemed to lead his orchestral colleagues in a skittering game of tag. As usual, Yuriy nailed it — with playing of joyful spirit and seemingly effortless virtuosity (the great ones always make it sound easy). As he scampered nimbly through the piece, I was struck anew by the thought: “Who needs a big-name fiddler when we’ve got Yuriy?” His orchestral colleagues — under their Maestro’s deft baton — supported him with sprightly skill and obvious affection. Yuriy returned the sentiment, playing along with his fellow violinists in several of the tutti sections: a practice that no doubt helped him stay attuned to his orchestra.

Incidentally, I keep hearing mutterings from concertgoers about how much longer we’ll manage to keep a musician of Bekker’s talent and growing stature around Charleston. Well, I’ve got news for you: Yuriy not only loves living and making music in Charleston, but he has also fallen in love with a lovely Charleston girl: Jenny Glace (a gifted flutist) — and they’ll be getting married on May 9. So, even if rising fame and fortune take him from us someday, my bet is that we’ll still be seeing (and hearing) plenty of him!

But the concert wasn’t over. Stahl and company (Yuriy, too) returned after intermission to treat us to Ludwig van Beethoven’s radiant Symphony No. 6, also known as the “Pastorale.” The only one of his nine symphonies that’s programmatic in nature, it’s been my favorite Beethoven symphony ever since I first heard it as a 13-year-old in Vienna. The opening movement evokes a serene journey through the rolling Austrian countryside, complete with glad gushes of sheer musical pleasure and contentment. The delicious Andante movement, in flowing 6/8 meter, depicts a meandering stream — complete with charming birdcalls from assorted woodwinds near the end.

From there, we join a bumptious, rustic village dance that is eventually interrupted by an approaching storm (we already heard one this evening from Rossini), complete with thunderclaps and shrieking winds. As the maelstrom recedes, a shepherd’s pipe-call precedes the symphony’s final theme: a sweet and airy song of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance from the storm; it gradually grows into joyful, throbbing passages that take your breath away, no matter how many times you’ve heard them. The orchestra — even at their core numbers — sounded rich and rosy, doing full justice to some of the most luscious orchestral music anywhere. Oh, no — Yuriy couldn’t possibly miss this one.

I drifted home in a happy daze, with the “Pastorale’s” gorgeous strains still ringing in my head — only to encounter a balky laptop and associated broadband problems that have only recently been solved: my feeble excuse for running so late in posting this commentary on a truly unforgettable concert.

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