The Charleston Symphony, seeking more cost-effective options, delivered its first Masterworks program at Memminger Auditorium last weekend.
Initially scheduled for the more spacious Gaillard Auditorium, the CSO recently switched venues for the Saturday event, but added an extra Friday performance (which I attended) to accommodate all of their ticketholders.
The CSO has already presented two smaller and more intimate Backstage Pass concerts at the highly adaptable Memminger, with a divider wall in place that cuts the building's performance space in half. But for this inaugural Masterwork outing, the entire building was open, with extra seats surrounding the orchestra on all sides.
Under Maestro David Stahl's baton, the evening kicked off with Giuseppe Verdi's overture to The Force of Destiny — one of his most forceful and dramatic operatic preludes. And right from the ominous opening three-chord clash, it was apparent that the CSO had some interesting new acoustic qualities to work with here.
The sound was clear and airy, with a fresh sonic spaciousness that allowed listeners to perceive the layering of orchestral sonorities as never before. There was none of that amorphous sonic mush that you often get at the Gaillard.
Next came Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9, a compact piece that stands in stark contrast to his sprawling earlier "wartime" symphonies. Yet it contains many of the same somber emotions. Charles Messersmith's poignant clarinet solos in the second movement suggested a weary soldier's homeward trek, and Christopher Sales' heartbreaking bassoon work in the dirge-like Largo left a lump in my throat.
But the remaining movements were mostly bright and playful, shot through with Shostakovich's unique sense of wit and whimsy. The third movement was even reminiscent of circus music.
After halftime came the evening's main attraction: Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, the most famous of the four he wrote. Solo honors fell to Jeffrey Biegel, who wowed us last season with the same composer's knuckle-busting third concerto.
Again, he remained in total technical control during the flashy sections, while milking every drop of emotion out of the composer's sweeping, ultra-romantic melodies. I've only rarely heard such beautiful tone and heartfelt expression in this music. My only complaint is that some of the piano's solid, bass-end sonorities sounded weak amid the hall's spacious acoustics. Perhaps a raised platform for his instrument would've helped.
Still, there's now a very strong case for making the Memminger the CSO's new venue-of-choice. —Linsday Koob