If the Charleston Symphony Orchestra is still in the midst of economic and spiritual recovery, it didn't reveal any sense of injury or weakness on Saturday evening during the opening performance of its Masterworks series. Led by conductor Stuart Malina, the CSO delivered dynamic renditions of Czech composer Antonín Dvorak's popular Symphony No. 8 and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, known as the "Emperor Concerto."
Grammy Award-winning pianist Emanuel Ax, the featured performer of the night, offered to perform for free in support of the CSO.
Currently in his 12th season as music director and conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, Malina served as the Associate Conductor of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra from 1993-'97. He mentioned how grateful he and the members of the CSO family were for patrons' support during his gracious introduction. "This program will go from one end of the Romantic era to the other," he said. With more than 2,000 (of all ages) in attendance, there were hardly any open seats in the Gaillard as Malina made his remarks and took the conductor's stand.
The program opened with an elegantly boisterous first movement from Dvorak's symphony propelled by rumbling timpani phrases and playful, major key melodies from the cellos and woodwinds. The tones turned slightly dark and moody through the second and third movements, providing good contrast. The influence of Bohemian folk music and Slavic dances made their way into the brassier, more bombastic final movement. Malina seemed invigorated and genuinely pleased with the orchestra's performance.
After an intermission, an abbreviated version of the CSO reassembled behind a grand piano and tuned up for the featured Beethoven work — a three-movement piece that Malina described as "one that shows Beethoven doing his best composing."
Ax hustled cheerfully to the piano after his brief introduction. He took his seat, watched the conductor's cue, and kicked off with a series of bold gestures and flamboyant flourishes. Poised and confident, Ax was a splendid soloist with terrific hand technique. His fists rebounded off of the keys after every heavy chordal accent. His fluid and occasionally percussive right hand key work in the upper registers was particularly expressive through the gentle arpeggios and quieter moments of the second and third movements.
Ax seemed completely at ease and in control of the piece, gracefully shifting tempos and dynamics with each transition. The mood intensified during the crescendos of the climactic fourth movement, during which Ax seemed to improvise a few phrases and carefully embellish the orchestral accompaniments.
Ax earned a big ovation and, surprisingly, rewarded the audience with a rare encore of a poetic piano piece by Chopin (Waltz No. 3 in A Minor, Opus 34 No. 2). It was a tender conclusion to a powerful program.