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February offered comic relief with a side of avant-garde



February ended as it began, with a truckload of varied and mostly well-performed serious music events.

The noise gremlins were back again at the Charleston Music Hall on Feb. 17 for our hometown orchestra's "Cutting Edge Women" program. Some heavy Saturday-night rocking from across the street nearly overcame some of solo cellist Natalia Khoma's soft and tender moments in Tchaikovsky's lush Rococo Variations. But, with a little help from her orchestral friends, her robust approach and rosy tone managed to drown out most distractions. Under Scott Terrell's deft baton, the CSO mostly prevailed over the competing cacophony in works by Ravel and three pioneering women composers: Fanny Mendelssohn (from the Romantic era), and modern Americans Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon. A ruined evening? Not quite. But everybody will heave huge sighs of relief when the reliable Casual Classics series moves back to the Sottile next season.

A week later at the Gaillard, the CSO paid its Masterworks series tribute to Russian master Dmitri Shostakovich in his 100th birthday year -- and the old man would've been pleased. His Symphony No. 10 (out of 15) is probably his finest. It's is a scathing depiction of life in the Soviet Union -- and the violent second movement is a musical portrait of Stalin himself. Maestro Stahl and his nicely reinforced musicians squeezed every last drop of depression and terror out of the score. It stood in brutal contrast to the preceding number, Beethoven's searching Piano Concerto No. 4. Petite Japanese pianist Mari Kodama delivered a gleaming and surprisingly powerful rendition.

In unholy alliance with the Charleston Concert Association, the CSO offered heavy comic relief on Mon. Feb. 26, when P.D.Q. Bach (alias Peter Schickele) came to town. As classical music's most beloved clown, he's been deflating stuffy classical conventions for nearly half a century now -- and he's as hilarious as ever. Traveling with a small cast, he works with local orchestras wherever he goes. He took turns on the podium here with good sport David Stahl, lampooning just about any classical cliché you can think of. We heard various strange instruments that most listeners won't want to ever hear again -- along with "works" like the Unbegun Symphony and the fractured quasi-opera The Civilian Barber. Great fun.

Non-orchestral variety first came my way on Fri. Feb. 23 at C of C's Simons Center Recital Hall, where Nathan Koci's New Music Collective offered another mind-stretching program. We heard creations of avant-garde composers past and present: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Pierre Boulez, and Henry Cowell are the best known. Also showcased were the considerable talents of Ray Evanoff -- one of Chucktown's most promising young composers. I wish I had room to tell you about all the instruments and their very capable players.

Rounding out the month's varied smorgasbord on Tues. Feb. 27 was one of the best yet of this season's International Piano Series programs at the Sottile. Young Chinese virtuoso Chu-Fang Huang -- still a student at Juilliard -- duly wowed her respectable crowd with finger-twisting blockbusters by Ravel and Chopin -- but I was even more impressed by the crystal clarity and sheer spirit that she put into a handful of short sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and a pair of Haydn sonatas. Make note of this young lady's name -- she'll be famous someday.

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