The Charleston Symphony Orchestra, directed by Maestro Michael Butterman, offered the first (of three) presentations of its final Masterworks series program on Thursday evening at the Sottile Theater. Saturday evening’s final outing will conclude the initial audition phase of the CSO’s music director search, having exposed Charleston’s classical music fans this season to six highly capable and well-qualified candidates for the position, vacant since the death of the orchestra’s beloved, longtime director, David Stahl. Under Butterman’s deft baton, our hometown band delivered a thrilling program of three choice Romantic-era masterpieces linked by common threads. Gracing the stage for the evening’s concerto was the dazzling pianist Marina Lomazov. Thursday morning’s public “Coffee with the Maestro” session revealed a highly personable, enthusiastic, and articulate gentleman. Of the six candidates we’ve been introduced to this season, he appears to be the busiest, currently holding down positions of considerable responsibility (including two music directorships) with four different American orchestras — and that on top of a full guest-conducting calendar.

Like Ken Lam, the previous candidate, Butterman came to orchestral conducting via choral music — and thus has a particular affinity for the big choral-orchestral classics. A Yale graduate, he’s won prizes in several major conducting competitions and has gained considerable international attention. He spoke passionately of his interpretive philosophy: always seeking “…a synthesis of head and heart.” He strives to balance his programs between beloved masterpieces and newer works that reflect the “vibes” and geographic environments of whatever communities he works in — and he is totally committed to music education and outreach. The opening selection was Franz Liszt’s Les Préludes the most popular of his dozen or so shorter orchestral works known as “tone poems” (a form he invented). Perhaps the most influential and innovative musician of the Romantic era, Liszt was also connected in different ways to the following two works in the evening’s program. As we soon heard, the composer packed a great deal into the piece’s compact course.

This work is a prime example of Liszt’s pioneering musical concept of “thematic transformation,” in which a basic core theme is presented at the start, evolving from there as the music progresses. In this case, an ominous three-note motif begins the piece, and the attentive listener can trace its constantly changing development as it reflects widely differing moods and effects. This piece has it all: pastoral beauty, dark premonitions, tender romance, stormy drama, blithe playfulness, and glorious triumph. Maestro Butterman and his players consistently brought out the best in the music, realizing it’s many moods effectively and delivering all-out, shiver-me-timbers sonic splendor from start to finish. The strings sounded lush and rosy, and the brasses were magnificent. Butterman added his own touches to the music, unique accents and tempo variations that I had never heard before in this piece. And we got our first look at his conducting style. Tall and handsomely rangy, his long, sweeping arms and expressive hand-gestures left no doubt in his players’ minds as to exactly what he wanted from them.

Enter Ukrainian-born pianist Marina Lomazov for a dynamic and memorable rendition of Norwegian master Edvard Grieg’s evergreen Piano Concerto in A Minor. She’s a world-renowned keyboard sorceress and one of our state’s true musical treasures, being a revered professor at the University of South Carolina. This one’s a real musical “war horse,” being one of the two or three most popular piano concertos in the repertoire. It combines feelings of cool Nordic melancholy with quaint Norwegian folk-themes, ravishing lyricism, and stunning solo virtuosity. A fairly early work, the young composer brought it to Liszt, the “grand old man” of European romanticism — who proceeded to sight-read through it at first glance before giving it his blessing.

So then, how does one deal with a war horse? By “riding” it with authority and making it your own. And Lomazov did just that, tearing into the work with the
ferocity and intense brilliance typical of the Russian school of pianism that she was trained in. Marina — a tall and willowy lady — demonstrated her commanding stage presence, seeming to crouch over the keyboard like a beautiful bird of prey. The only notable glitch occurred about halfway through the first movement, where she apparently suffered a memory lapse and lost track of her part for a few measures.

Still, she recovered nicely — and one conspicuous mistake does not a bad overall performance make. Butterman and friends supported her with skill and sensitivity every step of the way.

After intermission, the stage belonged to Butterman and company, as they returned to deliver a memorable and rousing performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ amazing “Organ” Symphony, one of the chief sonic splendors of the entire symphonic repertoire. Dedicated to the memory of Liszt, the work is conspicuous for its own approach to that composer’s “thematic transformation” style discussed above — except on a grander scale. After the sad somber introduction, the main theme appears in a fevered, scurrying manner, and attentive ears can pick up on variants of it throughout the entire symphony.

Saint-Saens was a model of compositional facility and a highly skilled orchestrator, and these virtues showed in this typically French work, with its sometimes flippant, not-quite-blasé character. It’s a highly challenging piece, for conductor and orchestra alike, and Butterman and his musical minions made the best of it. The music’s aural depth and richness is due in no small part to its rare inclusion of an organ employed here more as a component of the overall orchestral fabric rather than as a solo instrument. Our own Bill Gudger (one of Charleston’s musical treasures) presided at the keyboard, effectively lending the music its rumbling bass-end sonic foundation.

Our new maestro-candidate held this sprawling score together beautifully, again providing the kinds of interpretive touches that made this reading distinctly his own. Again, his steady beat and carefully rendered cuing made him a joy to play for (as several of his players told me after the concert). The orchestra sounded magnificent throughout. The substantial crowd expressed its appreciation with a clamorous standing “O.”

Given this assured and scintillating performance — and the others previously heard in this audition series — the CSO’s search committee faces a truly tough choice.

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