The chamber music concert began with a pirate banging on the door. He ran into the Great Hall at the Old Exchange Building, locks a-flying.
The evening as a whole had begun earlier, with a wine-and-cheese reception at 6:30 p.m., but the wine was already gone when I arrived at 7. (A concertgoer asked that I point that out.) Anyway, at 7:30, the marauder was quite excited — perhaps he was the one who drank all the wine? — carrying on about being locked in the dungeon with Blackbeard.
A rosy-cheeked redcoat soldier failed to apprehend the pirate but did manage to introduce the last in the Old Exchange's summer concert series (on Tues. Sept. 26). A string quartet from the Charleston Chamber Players, all of them members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, came out dressed in period costume — puffy shirts, breeches, lace-bonnets, petticoats, the works.
Classical musicians almost always wear black, from casual architect-ish togs to tailcoats. The only color on the Gaillard stage during a concert is usually shimmering in a female soloist's gown.
For Pops concerts, the CSO will occasionally wear a themed outfit — for instance, jeans for a "country"-oriented show. At one sports-themed Pops not long ago the musicians wore athletic outfits; one violinist sweated in an ill-advised wetsuit.
Mark Gainer has been principal oboist with the CSO for 23 years. He started the Charleston Chamber Players in 1990, and says he hesitated when the Old Exchange approached him with the idea of playing in costumes.
"Once I did it, though," Gainer says, "I realized how effective it was, in terms of having the concert fit in with the atmosphere of the building, creating a total experience."
Most of the musicians he asks also balk at the get-up, but they generally relent. A big concern is maneuverability — Gainer says it took a while to find a waistcoat that didn't restrict his breathing.
One former CSO musician I talked to said the idea sounded "degrading." But as the group launched into Mozart's Quartet in C Minor, I don't know if it was the puffy clothes, the dentil molding, or the ionic capitals, but it seemed a worthwhile experience, listening to music composed at the same time the place was built. The acoustics in the 1771 hall were sparkling.
As cellist James Holland, his wife, violinist Megan Holland, her sister, violinist Robyn Julyan, and violist Alex Agrest played, it occurred to me that, with the relative dearth of modern composing, orchestras today are essentially the ultimate cover bands.
Paradise City, a nationally-touring tribute band, not only covers Guns 'n' Roses tunes, they dress the part too (and, according to a hilarious New York Times Magazine article, manage to hold up their end on the chemical usage as well). For those who missed Jerry Garcia at the Fillmore East, Dark Star Orchestra recreates Grateful Dead concerts song-for-song.
So I wonder if there's a market for combining the pirate's and the Chamber Players' acts. A diminutive, goth-type, double-threat talent could play Chopin in a candlelit drawing room. Someone could do Bach in a church loft, conducting a cantata while playing the organ with a stick in the teeth, to reach extra notes. Or someone could re-enact Leonard Bernstein's auspicious fill-in debut with the New York Phil.
And maybe he could wave a scabbard instead of a baton. The whole pirate thing, so hot right now.