Spoleto Festival Orchestra and Violin superstar Sarah Chang bring the house down

Wow. I wonder if any orchestral performance I’ve experienced ever stirred the very core of my being like this one did. As it turns out, there’s a very good reason why that happened.

Tuesday evening’s second festival orchestral extravaganza at the Gaillard featured a pair of Western music’s most exalted monuments: the quality of music that we’ve come to expect from Maestro Emmanuel Villaume’s vaunted festival concerts.

The evening’s first half was devoted to Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77, the only fiddle concerto that the German romantic master left us. And violin Goddess Sarah Chang — this year’s distinguished soloist — gave us a rendition to remember, with some brilliant help from her orchestral colleagues.

There she stood in her stunning magenta gown during the lengthy orchestral introduction, swaying restlessly to the music. She made her slashing entrance, moving from brusque to beautiful as she explored her various themes with juicy tone, gossamer delicacy, and piercing power. Only a handful of her very softest notes got swallowed up by the orchestra. Her deft interpretive touches surprised and delighted as she illuminated the composer’s noble sentiments.

In the sad and brooding central movement, I was struck by the way her rapid, weepy vibrato adorned her playing. From there, she took us to the final movement’s bumptious German dance, radiating wholesome good spirits. A highly emotive virtuoso, Chang seemed even to dance as she stepped and swayed to the music. It looked (and sounded) almost as if she were in pain, as she plunged into the music’s moments of mighty grandeur.

She got gobs of glowing tone out of her precious Guarneri del Gesu violin, making it growl, glide, and glitter against her orchestra’s lush sonic backdrop. Villaume and company offered precise and sensitive support — plus some spectacular playing of their own in the extended orchestral passages. The capacity crowd showed its appreciation with an explosive standing ovation, taking us to intermission.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was one of those tortured Russian geniuses. His final big orchestral opus, the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (“the Pathétique”), is his most devastatingly tragic work, premiered just days before his death, amid a widely-rumored gay scandal that many think prompted his possible suicide (by drinking a glass of cholera-tainted water).

From the first movement’s opening bassoon lament, I knew this would be a performance to remember. After the first gloriously brassy climax, the music settled into the famous “yearning” theme that seems to pine for happiness just beyond reach. It morphed gradually into an anguished outcry, with burning gushes of throbbing string sound, echoed by aching woodwinds.

The second movement lightened things up a bit, with its flowing quasi-waltz in 5/4 meter. Villaume gave us a blithe body-dance as he conducted this deliciously syncopated music. The following section, a jaunty march-caricature, was delivered with a sort of celebratory glory that I’ve never heard in this music before.

The finale, as it is, makes for some of the most desolate, depressive music you’ll ever hear. Here’s a composer who seems to be at the absolute end of his rope. The ever-amazing members of the SFO let it all hang out here, with playing of devastating sorrow. Villaume drew wrenching, razor-sharp pangs of naked grief from them as they descended into the music’s final, bottomless pit of unrelenting gloom. I’ve never, ever heard such wretched sadness from an orchestra before.

And I found out why after it was all over and I was able to get backstage. We had to wait a few minutes to let the maestro recover, but even after he let us in, he looked absolutely drained. In a private moment together, Villaume told me that — just hours before the performance — he had learned of the untimely death of conductor/composer Silvio Barbato, one of his very dearest friends. You may recall that Barbato conducted gripping performances of Bellini’s opera, I Capuleti e I Montecchi, right here in Charleston during Spoleto ’04. He was on the Air France flight that went down into the Atlantic last Sunday.

And the SFO’s musicians must’ve known it, too. So this concert — especially the Tchaikovsky — boils down to a public act of real-world mourning. Now we know why the music cried so hard. And no wonder my soul still hurts.

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