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The embattled CSO celebrates its 75th anniversary

Diamond in the Rough

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With their new season still under suspension, the stalwart remnants of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra rallied their forces Friday evening at the jam-packed Gaillard Auditorium to celebrate the band’s 75th anniversary in grand and resounding fashion. Of course, they had some help from friends both old and new. Many fine regional freelance musicians, as well as some former CSO members, came to town for the occasion, swelling the CSO’s small core to nearly 90 musicians. The most welcome CSO veteran was former Associate Conductor Stuart Malina, who took on the happy task of leading this sprawling ensemble, the largest to occupy the Gaillard stage in years.

The music began with a rousing rendition of the national anthem, and we all sang lustily along. Mayor Joseph Riley delivered an eloquent and impassioned plea on behalf of our imperiled orchestra along with a plug for the impending Gaillard renovation. He then gave a touching eulogy for the late Karen Stahl, CSO Music Director David Stahl’s wife, and dedicated the concert to her memory. He told us that our cherished Maestro Stahl, who, on top of his bereavement, is battling his own health crisis, could not be there. But he had sent a recorded message that was then played for us, and there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

The scheduled music suited the occasion well, beginning with Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich’s exuberant Festive Overture. The celebratory music revealed this often-tragic composer’s lighter, more jocular side. Malina and company realized the piece’s gaudy carnival atmosphere very effectively, bringing out its frequent touches of cheeky banality and brassy clowning. Then came a sleek and luscious rendition of The Capriccio Espagnol, by Shostakovich’s romantic-era predecessor (and fellow Russian) Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  It was wonderful to hear our players have their winning way with this supremely colorful pastiche of Spanish tunes and rhythms, as filtered through a Russian soul. The music was peppered with spicy ensemble and solo passages that showcased each of the orchestra’s sections and many of the principal players, from concertmaster Yuriy Bekker on down.

But the best came after intermission, with Ludwig van Beethoven’s mystical and magnificent Symphony No. 9, the “Choral Symphony.” Joining the orchestra was a mighty chorus of over 180 voices from the CSO Chorus, the CSO Spiritual Ensemble, and the College of Charleston Concert Choir. Soprano Deanna McBroom, mezzo Janet Hopkins, tenor Harold Meers, and bass-baritone David Templeton made for a crack quartet of soloists. This symphonic giant celebrates the indomitable spirit of mankind in the context of divine creation and serves as Beethoven’s final great testament to posterity.

The brooding and unsettled mutterings that opened the first movement gave way to stormier passages and crashing intimations of chaos and despair. The manic, pounding scherzo that followed hardly lightened the mood, but blissful relief finally came with the profound and ethereally songful Adagio movement. Few symphonic movements can compare with the stupendous finale, where the chorus finally got some intense action. This glorious paean of triumph over adversity rose above the troubled turmoil that began the work, ending the music on a note of exultant rapture. Maestro Malina held the sprawling work together beautifully, and his musicians played their hearts out for him — and for us. The chorus, beautifully prepared by Dr. Robert Taylor, was simply amazing, pinning our collective ears back with veritable prop-blasts of thrilling sound.

Despite backstage inquiries afterwards, there’s precious little news to report about the CSO’s fate. Recommendations resulting from last spring’s public forums are still pending. In the wake of a recent executive board meeting, just about all anybody knows is that the board is apparently willing to consider plans for a holiday concert — and that a new contract offer may be made in the coming weeks that could still salvage part of the CSO’s normal season. The players would have to agree to the new contract.

But this spectacular concert reminded one and all as to what Charleston will be missing if our precious hometown orchestra is allowed to wither and die. If the crowd’s howling, 10-minute standing ovation and five stage calls afterwards are any indication, Charleston’s symphonic fans aren’t going to let that happen.

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