At risk of offering you ancient history (it happens sometimes in a weekly paper), let me take you back to a worthwhile pair of the Charleston Symphony's late March events: the next-to-last concerts from each of their main classical series.
The dependable Masterworks series offered a different sort of program on the 24th. A good-sized Gaillard crowd enjoyed a seldom-heard single work by the German romantic master Felix Mendelssohn: his magical incidental music to Shakespeare's fantasy A Midsummer Night's Dream. The music begins with a miraculous overture that makes you want to believe in woodland sprites and fairy queens (not the ones at Dudley's). Much of the miracle is that Mendelssohn wrote this stunning work at age 16.
And more's the magic that he was able to get back into the same surreal, puckish spirit when he wrote the rest of the music much later, in his 30s. You'd recognize parts of it — like the ubiquitous "wedding march" that newly married couples have tripped back down the aisle to for well over a century. It's a prime example of one kind of great art sprucing up another.
Orchestra aside, the piece calls for women's chorus, two soprano soloists and a narrator, all giving voice to actual lines from the play. The singers did fine: soloists Elizabeth Racheva and Dawn Pierce brought off their brief roles very nicely, and the massed ladies of the CSO Chorus sounded sweet and precise. The only vocal letdown was from the genuine English narrator, Chris Edwards. He read his lines clearly, but his regional accent (I couldn't place it) and style of delivery were enough to make seasoned thespians cringe.
This music sports some of the toughest string ensemble writing in all of music, calling for playing of incredible dexterity and control. And the CSO's strings did a rad job of it, at frisky (and risky) tempos, too. In fact, everybody played their hearts out for resident conductor Scott Terrell. Chalk up another Masterworks winner.
The second installment of the CSO's ongoing Casual Classics mini-series "In Honor of Women" came our way at the Charleston Music Hall on March 31. The going theme was "The Boulanger Effect," exploring the influence of Nadia Boulanger, by far the 20th century's greatest composition teacher. Even though she fizzled as a composer herself (her younger sister Lili was the real genius of the family), dozens of the best tunesmiths of the 1900s, especially Americans, were among her students.
The music traced an unbroken chain of influence, beginning with an orchestral suite by Gabriel Fauré, who taught the Boulanger sisters. Then came a potent piece from Lili: a radiant instrumental impression of spring, written just before her untimely death at age 24. Finally, we heard impressive and varied music from three of Nadia's famous students: Argentinian tango king Astor Piazzolla, minimalist pioneer Philip Glass (he'll be here for Spoleto), and Americana-meister Aaron Copland. Conductor Terrell and his players produced well-crafted accounts all-around, and the CMH's notorious external noise problem was hardly a factor this time. Terrell's laid-back discussions of the music served both as a useful introduction for classical newbies and an enjoyable summary for old hands.
With only one more concert to go in each of these series, it's probably safe to pronounce this season a success for the CSO. The Masterworks fare has kept the older-generation stalwarts happy, but younger folk have been well-served by the more approachable Casual Classics stuff — along with their two multimedia Out of the Box events (a Shostakovich event last fall and last week's short film contest). Packaged like this, classical is actually pretty cool.