Prime delights for small orchestra at Intermezzi I

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Monday’s late-afternoon Intermezzi series opener at the jam-packed Memminger Auditorium offered a tasty assortment of bonbons for small orchestra, splendidly performed by members of our workhorse Spoleto Festival Orchestra (SFO) under the deft baton of Alexander Kahn.

Folks, don’t forget what the ever-wonderful SFO is all about — or where they come from. Quite simply, these terrific young musicians are the solo, chamber and orchestral superstars of tomorrow. Most of them are grad students or recent grads from the nation’s tip-top music schools, like Juilliard, Curtis, Indiana, Peabody, etc. Nearly a thousand of them flock to nationwide auditions every year, but only around 100 of them get the nod for Spoleto, making our orchestra the cream of the cream of the national crop.

They come here because Spoleto duty is a valuable resume ticket, despite the fact that we work them like veritable slaves, something you couldn’t do with an established orchestra (union rules, etc.). Besides, they can’t chalk up this kind of performing experience anywhere else. Each of them puts in at least 12-hour days, rehearsing for and performing in multiple Spoleto gigs: the operas, the big choral and orchestral concerts, plus the Music in Time and Intermezzi series and sometimes other events, too. We like to call them Spoleto’s “orchestra of virtuosos.” Their Intermezzi performances, like this one, are routinely devoted to outstanding music for large chamber ensembles and/or small orchestras.

That said, this program’s selections were particularly appealing, while offering stark contrasts. Things got underway with Finnish master Jean Sibelius’s Valse Triste: a lovely, yet vaguely spooky piece written to depict a dying woman who hears “ghostly waltzes,” then rises, as the music grows in intensity, to dance with her spiritual “guests” before Death appears and takes her. The music unfolds in an insistent wash of cool, flowing Nordic melancholy that has made it one of the composer’s best-loved short pieces. Conductor Alexander Kahn and his players caught its sound and spirit beautifully.

Next came Igor Stravinsky’s more harmonically astringent and rhythmically spiky music: his Concerto for String Orchestra in D Major. It’s a prime example of his frequent use of forms and styles from periods past — in this case, the Baroque concerto format. But, as with many baroque concertos, there is no single solo instrument; instead, the music pits the sound of a smaller ensemble against that of the rest of the orchestra. Its fascinating, yet subtle harmonic twists and turns sit nicely over Stravinsky’s insistent rhythms, making the music suitable for ballet productions. This is marvelous, but tricky material; Kahn and company delivered it with tremendous precision, clarity, and verve.

Smooth and juicy contrast came with Edward Elgar’s supremely lyrical Introduction and Allegro for strings. But it shared a common basis with the preceding Stravinsky piece, namely the fact that it, too, was modeled along the lines of a Baroque concerto: both works juggled the sounds of a string quartet against the larger ensemble. But that’s where the similarities end. The music unrolled in long-breathed, lush and richly romantic lines. The instrumental interplay was fascinating, and the energy of the final section’s robust fugue swept us right up into its headlong excitement. You wouldn’t believe the gorgeous sound Kahn coaxed out of his people unless you were there.

Finally, we were treated to the concert’s real “AAaaaaaww!” moments: Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, his heartfelt musical love poem to his wife Cosima, written not long after she had given birth to their son, Siegfried (whom they had named for the major hero of Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas). Using several of the musical motifs from that and other music, Wagner fashioned an incredibly sweet and tender piece, with elements of a soft lullaby thrown in.

The story of its first performance is as touching as the music itself: Wagner kept the music a secret until Christmas morning of 1870 (also Cosima’s birthday), when he sneaked 16 musicians into their home while she was still asleep, positioned them along the house’s stairway, and wakened her gently with the piece’s soft and love-stricken opening strains. By all accounts, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. By the time they got through the music here, Kahn and friends had more than a few of us crying, too.

When’s the last time anybody did something like that for YOU?

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