Two fresh local music series got their starts this week. Saturday evening, Charleston Music Hall was the first-time scene for our hometown orchestra's Casual Classics season opener, and Ashley Hall School played host the next day to the College of Charleston's heavily buzzed new Charleston Music Festival chamber series.
Sadly, a sparse crowd left entire rows unfilled at the Music Hall for Saturday's symphony concert. In keeping with the program's "Out on the Veranda" theme, comfy Americana came our way via John Corigliano's witty and charming Gazebo Dances. Then things got downright deep in Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 — a shimmering masterpiece evoking impressions of a Southern childhood. The remaining pieces were among the last local gasps at celebrating Mozart's big birthday year. We got one of his spectacular concert arias, plus Tchaikovsky's "Mozartiana" Suite — written in tribute to his idol.
Resident Conductor Scott Terrell drew crisp, bright, and well-paced playing from his musicians throughout. The strings sounded a bit thin in the hall's clear but dry acoustics, and the band's overall bass end suffered, too. Esther Heidemann's floating, silvery soprano was a dream come true in the Barber — and her musicianship matched her vocal beauty.
Too bad there was a nasty palmetto bug in the ointment. John Street can be a rockin' spot of a Saturday night, and the Music Hall's walls are thin. So when the party got hearty next door at Coast restaurant's garden seating area and a big jazz concert got cranked up at the Visitors' Center across the street, we heard it all ... and from all sides. It simply ruined some of the concert's more delicate moments, and more than a few there were downright irate about it. Kudos to Terrell and company for keeping their cool through it all. With the rest of Casual Classics slated for the Music Hall this season — the Sottile's undergoing renovation — something's gonna have to be done about all the racket if this series is to prosper.
At Ashley Hall the following afternoon, the sonic environment remained unpolluted. In fact, their mini-hall (seating around 100) is acoustically ideal for chamber music. And it was packed tight for this much-ballyhooed event, kicking off the College's new Music Fest series, featuring the school's resident professors (violinist Lee-Chin Siow and cellist Natalia Khoma) plus distinguished guest artists.
The starry guest attractions were violinist Keng-Yuen Tseng and pianist Boris Slutsky, who got things going with an elegant reading of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 3. Khoma then joined them for an emotionally naked go at Schubert's aching Adagio for piano trio before trading places with Siow for the over-the-top romance of Moritz Moszkowski's Suite for Two Violins and Piano in G Minor. The final work was a snazzy Fritz Kreisler arrangement of Manuel de Falla's Dance Espagnole for violin and piano — with Slutsky and Tseng again doing the honors.
Around midway came the concert's highlight — a spectacular display of solo violin pyrotechnics in the form of Nathan Milstein's Paganiniana. You never hear it in concert, 'cause even the best violinists are scared to death of it. Tseng coolly tossed it off with a silken tone plus uncanny speed and accuracy in what has got to be the most jaw-dropping display of violin virtuosity I've ever heard live.
I've heard some scoff at such world-class pretensions from mere "local" musicians — even those (like Siow and Khoma) with international reputations. But I'm here to tell you that these players can stand proudly toe-to-toe with the very best — even those who've trod the Dock Street stage during Spoleto. And I think even Charles Wadsworth would agree.