Maestro Emmanuel Villaume told me he really liked how the smaller of last year's two festival concerts sounded in the acoustically-adjusted Sottile Theatre. No wonder they've gone and planned a second orchestral program there this time around. Spoleto veterans will recall that one "festival concert" is all we've normally gotten in the past — could it be that we're witnessing the early stages of a new Spoleto tradition?
Hey, why not? More choices can't hurt. The larger affair — usually at the Gaillard — gives us humongous orchestral behemoths from the late romantics on: stuff that shows off every sound a modern orchestra can make. But a smaller venue like the Sottile can be even better when it comes to earlier material for smaller orchestras — like from the early romantics and classicists. Last year we got Beethoven's Olympian fifth symphony, plus Mahler's neurotic fifth in the big concert. This year's main Sottile entry is Johannes Brahms' equally noble and accomplished Symphony No. 4, very different from Mahler's oddly serene fourth that we'll hear later in the festival.
Brahms may well have sensed that he didn't have a whole lot longer to live when he wrote this sublime masterpiece; it has that "valedictory" feel to it. He poured music of tremendous beauty, power, lyricism, and glowing emotion into the most exquisite classical-form framework you could imagine. In it, he somehow managed to civilize — even idealize — the chaos of human emotion. Brahms fretted all his life that his music would be overshadowed by Beethoven's in the end, but this final symphony proves that he needn't have worried.
And its final movement crowns already deathless music with a towering musical miracle that's been keeping concertgoers on the edges of their seats for well over 100 years now. Geeks call it a passacaglia, but it's basically a canon — a fine old form that's been around for centuries. It's based on a short, repetitive series of notes (usually the bass line) that becomes the foundation for a bunch of variations. Think Pachelbel's Canon — it's built the same way. Brahms gives us 34 variations in all — each of them over in no time. And every one of them, different though they may sound, has those same basic notes in it somewhere. It's one of those pieces that even the brainiest listeners keep going back to, just to make sure they've caught all of Brahms' subtle tricks. It calls for a beefy, mid-sized orchestra and the esteemed musicians of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra should make it sound fabulous at the Sottile. If you've never heard this piece in concert, just be there.
But don't forget, there's the appetizer: the sophisticated, but much lighter Ma Mere L'Oye (Mother Goose) by Maurice Ravel. These fluffy French pieces were first written as a series of simple piano duets for the children of friends. But he later expanded and orchestrated them for use as a ballet score. Only two of its five episodes are actually from the classic fairy tale collection of the same name — but the inquisitive fairy-tale spirit of Mother Goose is never far from the surface in this often whimsical and tender score. It's a perfect foil to the later and weightier Brahms fare.
Mass disappointment when last year's Sottile outing sold out like wildfire led to a last-minute added performance. Any chance of that this year? If not, you'll just have to pray that tickets can still be had by the time you read this.
Festival Concert: Brahms' Symphony No. 4; Ravel's Mother Goose • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$60 • (1 hour 45 min.) • May 31 at 8 p.m. • Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. • 579-3100