Saturday was a big day for Charleston Symphony Orchestra fans. French piano superstar Jean-Yves Thibaudet — whose glittering playing and deep musicianship electrified Spoleto USA’s early days — returned to Chucktown for an inspired go at a classic American piano concerto.
Kicking off the 20th-century program was Blue Cathedral, a glowing tone-poem by American standout Jennifer Higdon. Written in memory of her deceased younger brother, the piece is built around touching “conversations” between the flute (Higdon’s own instrument) and clarinet (her brother’s). But Jessica Hull-Dambaugh’s gentle flute soon fell back, leaving Charles Messersmith’s questing clarinet to pursue its heavenly journey through an imaginary “glass cathedral in the sky.”
The music evoked such celestial surroundings with an airy palette of orchestral color. Many players did double duty, adding ethereal atmosphere with such unusual instruments as tiny handbells and “tuned” wine glasses.
We next heard Hungarian genius Belá Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, his best-known big-band masterpiece. This exciting (and often humorous) work balances “concertante” episodes from various soloists and sections against passages for full orchestra. Everybody got to strut their stuff.
Not just any old band can pull off this spectacular virtuoso showpiece. But Maestro David Stahl pumped his players into a creative frenzy, lifting them beyond themselves. Sure, there were a few tiny instrumental flubs, and some of the tricky transitions between orchestra and soloists could’ve been smoother. But their rendition was electrifying nonetheless. There followed too many solo bows to recount, but the witty second-movement contributions of Christopher B. Sales, the CSO’s new principal bassoonist, bear mentioning.
Enter Thibaudet, doing the solo honors in George Gershwin’s ebullient Concerto in F, one of the best-ever blends of the jazz idiom and classical form. The French love jazz, and our returning hero really rocked, sounding as much at home here — and easily as brilliant — as any American player I’ve heard.
His snappy, swinging performance inspired a delirious standing O, plus a magical solo encore: Debussy’s “Claire de Lune.” And, in the midst of his own ovation, Thibaudet turned and clambered back through the orchestra to toss the bouquet of flowers he’d just been handed to a stunned principal trumpet Karin Bliznik — whose tender, bluesy solos were truly something special.
It was a touching onstage tribute that capped off an evening chock-full of moving and memorable moments.