On returning to Charleston a few years ago after several decades away, my first question was how I would get my culture jollies around here. After all, while in the U.S. military, I got spoiled rotten in places like Vienna, Munich, and D.C. My fears were laid to rest when I attended my first Charleston Symphony concert. Say what? A provincial American orchestra that regularly gives us Mahler and Bruckner — and expertly played to boot?
We haven’t heard much Bruckner from the CSO lately; it simply costs too much to import all the extra musicians you need for him. But on Jan. 6, a respectable Gaillard crowd got to hear his “Romantic” symphony (No. 4) in a concert I’ve borrowed my title from here. Doubling the orchestra’s size for the concert seemed risky, considering the CSO’s brush with disaster this season. But the result was worth it. Perfect it wasn’t: Among other minor complaints, there were some bobbled horn notes here and there, and some mushy string work in the scherzo movement. But overall, Maestro Stahl and his players still gave us a lush and soaring performance to wallow in.
And before that, their rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto was even better. With emerging German star Daniel Mueller-Schott doing solo honors, this was one of the finest concerto performances I’ve ever heard. He was almost like a second conductor, rarely losing eye contact with the massed strings around him: his phrasing melded magically with theirs, playing the work’s main mood of elegiac melancholy to the hilt.
So we’ve still got our big-band glory for the time being. But is there any justification for optimism? With forward-looking corporate bigwigs like Ginn Resorts leading the way, the recent business coalition that bailed the CSO out last month may be a good omen — but right now, it amounts to no more than a temporary reprieve.
On firmer footing is the College of Charleston’s excellent new Charleston Music Festival chamber series. Great music from small ensembles being much cheaper, our Spoleto-induced taste for chamber goodies should be much easier to satisfy over the long haul. Especially when the quality is as good as what we got at the Dock Street on Jan. 12.
Series codirectors Lee-Chin Siow (violin) and Natalia Khoma (cello), along with pianist Volodymyr Vynnytsky, got things going with a go at one of Haydn’s best piano trios. After a slightly shaky start, everything jelled well — and the driving Hungarian-flavored finale had the packed house on the edge of their seats. Our pianist then took turns with his leading ladies in showpieces by Brahms and Ravel, besides wowing the crowd with a blockbuster for solo piano by Chopin. After halftime, their gutsy reading of Smetana’s grief-stricken Piano Trio in G Minor brought down the house.
Breathe only shallow sighs of relief, ’cause chamber music may well soon be all we have left. The specter of doom for the CSO still looms large, and we — as a community — still have to find ways to give our most precious native cultural resource a shot at permanent survival. These days, my burning question is, do we care enough?