There were very few empty seats at the Gaillard Tuesday night for the second Festival concert, where Emmanuel Villaume’s Spoleto Festival Orchestra took three symphonic blockbusters by storm. All were scored in the lush, big-band sound of the late romantics — and did we ever have the kind of big band you need to play them right.
Richard Strauss’s blockbuster tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, boils down to a manic clown portrayed in music. Its rollicking, turn-on-a-dime structure — on top of its jocular, jumpy rhythms — depict various episodes from the life of a legendary medieval German buffoon who pulled one prank too many and lost his head for it.
And an orchestra needs entire sections full of brilliant musicians before they can even think of playing it. There are incredibly dense, busy stretches in this piece, with blocks of players scampering in all directions — and only the very best of musicians can hold it all together and make it work. And work it did, under Villaume’s commanding baton. There were a couple of minor instrumental bobbles — but nothing to truly mar the performance.
Then came the work that Mickey Mouse made famous (in Disney’s Fantasia): The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by the French one-hit wonder Paul Dukas. This colorful tone poem — with its humor, whimsy and fairy-tale flavors — remains one of the marvels of late-romantic orchestration. As the music surged into its second grand climax, I closed my eyes, and I was once again a fantasy-struck little boy in the movie theater, watching Mickey get sucked into the maelstrom of his own making. Music as time machine? Works for me.
After halftime, Villaume and company got down to the evening’s magnum opus — Gustav Mahler’s “heavenly” Symphony No. 4. “Mahler-Lite,” some have called it. Well, it may be the shortest and sunniest of his nine symphonies, and written for the smallest orchestra — but it’s still Mahler. Sure, there’s an unusual degree of calm and delicacy to it — plus a generally easygoing, rustic aura. But good ol’ Gustav couldn’t resist forging a few loud and juicy passages here and there, and even gave us a typically manic-depressive outburst towards the close of the dreamy slow movement. The otherwise ambling scherzo takes on an uneasy edge as concertmaster Tim Peters (who shone in several place throughout the concert) switched to a second violin that had been tuned up a step for the slightly grating passages that Mahler suggested were being “played by death.”
Well, there’s got to be some dying if you’re going to spend the last movement singing about heaven. And that singing was done most beautifully, thanks to the pure and lovely soprano voice of Monica Yunus. She simply nailed the role, technically as well as interpretively. This final section is based on a German folk-poem from the 19th-century collection, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn),” describing heaven through a child’s eyes. And if you didn’t know better (mostly from the feminine curves under her lovely lavender gown), you’d have sworn that Yunus was a wide-eyed little girl, singing of her happy celestial vision in rapt juvenile wonder.
These brilliant young musicians were an absolute joy to hear from beginning to end. The preconcert rumblings about looming harp problems failed to come true — and quite a few of us were listening for those. I wish folks wouldn’t make such a big deal about what they hear in rehearsals. That’s when you’re supposed to make your mistakes, learn from them and get them out of the way — not help us nitpicking critics find ways to put unfair pressure on you leading into a performance.
I’ve been listening to the Spoleto Festival Orchestra for sixteen Spoletos now — and they’ve never sounded better to me than they do this year — and not just in this concert. Where else but Spoleto can you hear the absolute cream of America’s young musicians gathered at one place and time, putting their extravagant gifts at the service of almost every kind of great music?

Festival Concert: Mahler’s Symphony No. 4; tone poems by Strauss and Dukas • Spoleto Festival USA • $10-$65 • (1 hour 45 min.) • June 5 at 8 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • 579-3100