Bravo, Bekker
CSO Concertmaster brings the house down

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim was just about packed a good 15 minutes before the concert began — a good omen for violinist Yuriy Bekker’s first solo Piccolo Spoleto recital since he became the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) new Concertmaster last year. In fact, this was only the second or third chance he’s had to strut his considerable solo stuff since his arrival.

I say solo, but in most violin recitals it takes two to tango — and Bekker found his ideal artistic partner in pianist Andrew Armstrong. A frequent visitor, Andy’s been playing Piccolo for years, earning Charleston favorite status in the process. He made long overdue debut appearances with the CSO and the College’s International Piano Series this past season. Not only is he a brilliant solo artist, but a sensitive and self-effacing chamber pianist who tunes right in to his fellow players’ vibes. In short, the kind of musical collaborator Bekker deserves.

The day the CSO got Yuriy was a lucky one. This Belarus native came to America as a boy, not long after the collapse of Soviet Russia — and got his advanced training here. He’s a big, friendly bear of a young man — the kind of person you know you like the minute you meet him. His English still bears the trace of an accent, but otherwise, he’s as American as you or me.

This man was born to play the fiddle. Plump, smooth tone, uncanny control, stiletto-sharp intonation, musicality and passion to burn. He’s got it all, and then some. And play the heck out of his fiddle is just what he did, in this much-buzzed Piccolo Spotlight event — part of the festival’s “A World of Jewish Culture” series. So of course, all of the music was by Jewish composers.

The serious stuff came first, kicking off with something you hear once in a blue moon: Aaron Copland’s fascinating Sonata for Violin and Piano. Right from the opening bars, you just knew it was Copland — you just can’t mistake his unique harmonic stamp that shouts AMERICAN at you. But this piece is hardly the populist stuff you hear all the time from him. It’s a lush and lyrical piece, but with some thorny passages and a lot of modern ideas. And the final movement is a real tour-de-force that shows what a violinist is made of. Bekker nailed it, with deft and simpatico support from Armstrong.

Jewish though Copland may have been, his music doesn’t sound particularly Jewish. Not so for the next two numbers. Ernest Bloch’s three-movement Baal Shem is chock-full of themes and effects that hint at (and sometimes scream) klezmer and other Jewish flavors. The same goes for Hebrew Melody, by his contemporary Joseph Achron. Both of these were also virtuoso numbers that not just any violinist can play well. Here they sounded spectacular.

On from there to the fluffy lighter stuff, beginning with showy arrangements of favorite melodies from (who else?) George Gershwin’s (what else?) Porgy and Bess. And the final dessert course was a cluster of three delightfully schmaltzy violin standards by Fritz Kreisler. You could tell that both Bekker and Armstrong were having a ball with these — and the crowd just wouldn’t stop smiling, right on through their noisy standing “O.”

The night before, after these gents had run through their program over at Millennium Music, I overheard one of the lucky listeners saying that, with chops like Yuriy’s, we probably wouldn’t be able to keep him around here for long. “I don’t know about that,” was his response; “I like it in Charleston.” And that, too, was music to our ears.