Native Son Mikhail Agrest Returns to Conduct CSO

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Technically, conductor Mikhail Agrest is not exactly a true native— having emigrated here from St. Petersburg, Russia as a boy with his parents in the 1980’s — but we’ll gladly claim him anyway. His parents, Alex and Rosolita — who had been prominent musicians back home — soon found work and warm acceptance with the Charleston Symphony as members of the strings section. Cynthia Branch, CSO’s director of patron services, remembers admonishing little Mikhail to stop dashing up and down the Gaillard’s hallways during rehearsals. She, along with many others, also remembers the time when — as a brilliant young teenaged violinist — he appeared with the CSO as featured soloist in the Mendelssohn concerto. At about the same time, I heard him perform splendidly along with his parents as part of a string quartet.

Well, Mikhail is all grown up now, with a family of his own. And he’s also got a fabulous career going, as a busy and highly successful young conductor who has performed on four continents. His advanced education (supported by patrons in Charleston) took him to Indiana University’s legendary music school. From there it was back to St. Petersburg, where he studied conducting and landed his first position with the Marinsky Theater. There, he became assistant to — and a protégé of — Valery Gergiev, Russia’s greatest Maestro. This led to acclaimed appearances worldwide, wherever the Marinsky’s famous ballet & opera troupes performed — including New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He’s also been in considerable demand as a guest conductor with more of the world’s top orchestras than you can shake a baton at.

So — while we can't begrudge him his burgeoning succes — his debut appearance conducting the CSO has been long overdue ... but better late than never. The occasion was the hometown band’s latest Masterworks event, which took place at the Gaillard Saturday before last, in front of a regrettably sparse crowd. But imagine how he must’ve felt, directing the orchestra with which he first appeared as a boy-wonder violinist … and with his proud daddy beaming at him from the viola section.

He led a choice program of symphonic favorites from German and Russian masters, beginning with the overture to Oberon, one of Carl Maria von Weber’s operas — and one of his finest short orchestral compositions. Under his deft baton, our players delivered a bracing account, with standout contributions from Brandon Nichols’ horn and Charles Messersmith’s clarinet. From there it was on to one of Peter Tchaikovsky’s most delightful creations, the Orchestral Suite No. 4, nicknamed the “Mozartiana.” Tchaikovsky idolized the Austrian master, and honored him by basing this piece on actual themes from some of his more obscure works, but presenting them with his hallmark romantic orchestral richness. Agrest led a happy and affecting performance, catching every last bit of the music’s charm and sunny spirit. The highlight for me was the final movement’s sparkling ‘Theme and variations,’ featuring a protracted and beautifully played violin solo from acting concertmaster Amos Lawrence.

After intermission, Mikhail preceded the final selection with a short and moving speech about his remarkable musical journey, and how he traces it all back to Charleston, his adopted home. Then, as the evening’s final thank-you, he mounted the podium for a noble and emotionally potent performance of Johannes Brahms’ mighty Symphony No. 1. Tormented by the lingering shadow of Beethoven, Germany’s supreme symphonist, Brahms struggled for many years with this one — but posterity agrees that it’s this work that established him as the older master’s true successor.

After the somber and brooding introduction, Agrest propelled his players fearlessly into the first movement’s sweeping theme, with its magnificent orchestral hammer-strokes — while skillfully defusing the prevailing tensions in contrasting lyrical passages. In the following ‘Andante sostenuto’ movement, he and his players melted our hearts, capturing the deepest essence of this serenely pastoral music while doing justice to its ominous undercurrents. They nailed the similar contrasts in the ‘Un poco allegretto e grazioso’ movement, in music that ranged from flowing and graceful to dark and unsettled. In the intense and varied finale, they took us on a glorious and thrilling tour of the composer’s psyche, touching on more moods and feelings than you could count.

Undersized or not, the strings sections outdid themselves, managing — for the most part — to produce the kind of weighty, burnished tone that Brahms so often calls for. Their sound was especially luscious in the finale’s famous main theme, heard as a glowing chorale from the lower strings. The woodwinds sang sweetly throughout, and the assorted brasses sounded terrific. Timpanist supreme Beth Albert got a real workout, too. The orchestra’s technical cohesion and sense of ensemble were exemplary, in music that’s not easy on either players or conductor.

But the evening's triumph belonged to Mikhail. It’s about time he came home for more than just family visits. Let’s all lobby to get him back to conduct our wonderful orchestra more often. After all, though he may be one of the world’s finest emerging young conductors, he’s also one of our own … and we deserve to share the fruits of his prodigious talent more often.

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