Comedy was the theme of the Charleston Symphony's Nov. 10 Casual Classics concert at the Charleston Music Hall, where a fair-sized crowd got their funny bones tickled — at least to the extent that classical music can actually be funny.
Things began with recent Grammy winner William Bolcom's (pictured at left) Commedia for (almost) 18th-Century Orchestra, a sprightly spoof of the dignified musical mannerisms of yore. Charles Ives' CountryBand March was an intentional musical train-wreck, portraying a really bad marching band — but the complexity of the music (it contained some 40 snippets of old American folk tunes) kept it from achieving the high comedy I'd hoped for. The musical chicanery of P.D.Q. Bach (alias Peter Schickele) got grins, giggles, and a few outright guffaws. His overture to The Abduction of Figaro lampooned a pair of Mozart operas — and the better you knew them, the funnier it was.
From there, it was off on a Russian tangent. Igor Stravinsky's pair of suites for chamber orchestra got no laughter, but their lighthearted wit and whimsy were hardly wasted. Enter birthday boy Dmitri Shostakovich (celebrating 100 this year), whose Ballet Suite No. 3 revealed his lighter side — and the coarse, even banal wellsprings of Russian humor. Resident Conductor Scott Terrell and his players (who obviously enjoy working with him) offered deft and pleasing performances: The tricky little Stravinsky gems came off with sparkle and polish. Outside noise pollution — often a problem at CMH — was minimal this time.
Humor and high spirits also made their way into the Masterworks concert on Nov. 18 at the Gaillard. New Yorker Richard Danielpour's Toward a Splendid City is a bold, brassy tribute to the Big Apple. Its shifting meters and sense of barely controlled musical chaos painted a bright and convincing sonic picture of our most famous city. It's a ferociously difficult number, but David Stahl (himself a New Yorker) kept his players under tight control from start to finish.
The evening's crowd-pleaser followed: George Gershwin's evergreen Rhapsody in Blue, in its big-band version. It's about time internationally renowned pianist Andrew Armstrong got to play with the CSO; he visits often, and has been wowing local fans in solo recitals and chamber music for years. This orchestra does Gershwin right, and Armstrong was their perfect partner. He zeroed straight in on the music's jazzy swagger with panache, glittering technique, and just the right lyrical touch. His noisy standing-O proved he was definitely the hit of the concert.
After halftime, the concert soared to its close with one of America's classic tone poems, Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite. Grofe was no Beethoven, but he was a master orchestrator, and knew how to create powerful musical images. We heard glowing evocations of both sunrise and sunset over vast panoramas, the Painted Desert's riot of color, and a shattering thunderstorm. The evening's touch of humor came in "On the Trail," with its mulish hee-hawing and clip-clopping on top what can only be a cowboy tune. Stahl drew big, lush sound from his musicians in this one, ending a lovely evening of Americana with a bang.
So how's the CSO's season going? So far, so good; there've been no flops to date, and the biggest problems (apart from money woes) have been circumstantial — like the external noise problem at the Music Hall. The New York Phil they're not, but there are few regional American orchestras that can match them. As local jazz guru Quentin Baxter put it to me recently, "Charleston's a small town with a big-city vibe," and the CSO is a big part of that.