by Lindsay Koob
Thursday’s Intermezzo IV program delivered a fitting finale to this ever-dependable series, offering appealing and well-played selections by three very different composers. Doing the honors was a chamber-sized ensemble drawn from the ranks of the brilliant Spoleto Festival Orchestra, under the assured and expressive hands (no baton) of Bulgarian conductor Sergei Pavlov.
For starters, Pavlov eased his small band gently into the sultry, summery strains of Pastorale d’ été, a rarely-heard orchestral miniature by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger. Most music lovers know him from his main hit, Pacific 231, a near-violent orchestral evocation of a steam locomotive. But this lovely music couldn’t possibly be more different. Its apparent inspiration was an epigraph by Rimbaud: “I have Embraced the Summer Dawn.” The music is full of seasonal symbolism, like intimations of birdsong floating over flowing strings, evoking the mood and feel of a long and dreamy summer day. It forms a perfect arch, rising from soft and dreamy beginnings to an ecstatic climax, before falling back down into absolute serenity. Judging from the moment of silence before the applause began, it left the rest of the audience as entranced as I was.
Our musicians next treated us to a wonderful performance of American icon Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, originally commissioned and performed by America’s “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman, who was also a pretty good classical performer. Our soloist was clarinetist supreme Michael Byerly, who’s been returning to play with the SFO for five years now. In fact, I know him: he used to hang out in my classical room at the old Millennium Music store between rehearsals and gigs, yakking about festival goings-on and advising me as to the best clarinet recordings.
The piece begins serenely, with typically Copland-esque harmonies that any fan of Appalachian Spring could pick up on. But then, a brilliant cadenza breaks the mood, with the clarinet scampering hither, thither, and yon as it leads us into the jazzy and exuberant finale. Our soloist’s playing ranged from sweetly sensitive to brazenly athletic, and he swung with the best. I don’t think even Benny played it any better than Michael did (and I’ve heard the original recording). It was good to hear him again, this time in his own concerto performance. It was the highlight of the concert for me.
But that takes nothing away from the orchestra’s rendition of the final work: Mozart’s immortal Symphony No. 40, one of his most popular symphonies. Written in the melancholic key of G minor, the piece is known for its tense and nervous energy. From its gently chugging opening bars, the first movement lapses into moments of calm, and later, a driven fugato passage. The Andante movement brings a bit of uneasy respite, leading into the brisk and emphatic Menuetto, with its momentarily sunny trio section. The scurrying (and spooky) finale brings the piece to a driven close. Pavlov and friends delivered the goods in a chiseled and well-paced account that the crowd clearly loved.
Thus ended both the concert and this year’s Intermezzi series, and mingled pangs of both grief and relief suddenly hit me: Uh-oh, I thought. Spoleto, my annual “joyful ordeal,” as I call it, is almost over … and life won’t be the same in Charleston until around this time next year. I may not have to work this hard again until then (I'll have cranked out around 40 Spoleto-related articles by festival's end) – but neither will I be able to gorge myself silly on so much great music. And the grief definitely outweighs the relief.