Review: CSO's Shining Soul

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The Charleston Symphony Orchestra gave its first Mastersworks concert of the new year last night. Lindsay Koob checked it out and sent us this review. —J.S.

A pretty fair crowd braved Saturday’s wintry blast to attend “Shining Souls,” the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s first Masterworks concert of the New Year at the Gaillard.

On the menu was a pair of Russian masterpieces. Both composers had not only shining souls, but tortured ones, too — and their various demons were revealed last night to all who were there.

As with much Russian music, you’d best be ready to absorb some heavy pathos and pain — but the radiant romance and gorgeous melodies you also get make it worth the psychic assault.

The evening’s first half brought us Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, the Pathetique. It’s a marvel of aching sadness, relieved by passages of lush beauty, stark drama and yearning lyricism.

As I’ve often reported, music director David Stahl has a special touch with Tchaikovsky: He and his dependable musicians consistently bring this composer’s naked emotion to soul-shattering life, while avoiding sleazy sentiment.

It took a few tentative moments into the first movement before everything began to gel — but from there to the end, we got a thrilling roller-coaster ride through the piece. The going got headlong as Stahl revved his players up to breakneck tempos, like in the bouncy, march-like third movement.

A shining highlight was the second movement’s dreamy, flowing quasi-waltz; the CSO’s well-reinforced strings (a welcome trend lately) made it sound glorious. The music’s glow was hardly dimmed by the dark, crushing gloom of the final slow movement.

After intermission, pianist Jeffrey Biegel joined the orchestra for a spectacular go at Rachmaninoff’s finger-twisting Piano Concerto No. 3, alleged to be the most difficult and exhausting work of its kind. Part of its surrounding legend is the tale of Australian pianist David Helfgott (as told in the movie Shine), who was supposedly driven insane by its fearful demands.

But Biegel — with sensitive and considerate support from Stahl and company — rose to the piece’s every challenge, with playing of mind-boggling dexterity, lyrical intensity, and commanding power. Pianists had better count superhuman technique and endurance among their strengths before they even think about tackling this number. His hands were flashing blurs much of the time as they negotiated more notes than our ears could possibly keep track of.

Our howling standing O even got us an encore: I couldn’t hear him from the balcony as he announced its composer; all I got was something like “Rush hour in Hong Kong” — a funny little solo piece, skittering all over the keyboard. I wondered how he could still move his fingers, after the sublime workout he had just given them.

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