The Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s third Masterworks program unfolded last night with unalloyed glory at the Sottile Theater. The Holy City’s dependable hometown band performed splendidly under the baton of Sean Newhouse, the latest candidate for the position of new Music Director, another in the — thus far — very impressive list of conductors who aspire to the position. Chinese-American pianist Di Wu – substituting at the last moment for indisposed Andrew Armstrong in the evening’s piano work – turned out to be a mesmerizing magician of the keyboard.
Newhouse comes to us with an impressive record of achievements. One intimidating challenge was stepping in on short notice to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 9. He has lately served as assistant conductor of the BSO, at the invitation of his illustrious mentor, Maestro James Levine.
During the “Coffee with the Maestro” gathering Thursday morning, Newhouse (who has guest-conducted the CSO before) spoke of his program choices, discussing some of the thematic threads connecting the various works. One ambition for Newhouse — should he get the job — is to tie his CSO programming in with the Lowcountry’s history and cultural roots, perhaps commissioning new music associated with the writings of celebrated coastal Carolina poet and author DuBose Heyward, the librettist for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
The program opened with a short contemporary work: American master John Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra) – inspired, of course, by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s landmark novel, The Great Gatsby, set in the jazz-permeated and flapper-populated Roaring Twenties. The thematic tie-in here is the subject of chaotically passionate (also doomed) love affairs (one of the novel’s salient plot elements), which also underlies the evening’s magnum opus, the Symphonie Fantastique. The music — after its arrestingly dramatic introduction — unfolded with a sense of jazzy nostalgia, lots of starts and stops and profuse touches of wit and whimsy, a truly delightful musical confection.
Enter piano sorceress Di Wu, for an impassioned go at Sergei Rachmaninoff’s much-loved Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This endlessly fascinating musical smorgasbord of differing moods, styles, and effects was one of several among the Russian master’s sweeping romantic works that were mercilessly “mined” by American Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the day for their sweetly sentimental tunes. Hardly just another make-do substitute, Wu is an exceptionally brilliant young artist. The CSO was indeed fortunate to snag her for this concert on such short notice, especially since she was obviously very well prepared for this highly challenging work. A replacement of lesser capabilities might well have forced a program change to a less-demanding selection.
Another thematic parallel links this work to the evening’s final symphony — this time it was both composers’ use of the ancient Dies Irae (day of judgment) chant tune in their respective works that dates back well over a millennium. Its use lends both works “demonic” elements, especially considering the fact that the original theme underlying the variations came courtesy of legendary romantic-era Italian violin super-virtuoso/composer Niccolò Paganini (his Caprice, No. 24), whose unearthly fiddling abilities (and cadaverous appearance) were fancifully attributed to his being in league with the Devil.
Wu stunned her lucky listeners right from the start, playing with tremendous clarity, precision, energy, interpretive flair, and staggering virtuosity. Nothing was beyond her: glittering runs, thundering octaves, incredibly speedy fingerwork, and heartrending, ultra-emotional piano “singing” that almost made me cry. No surprise that the fair-sized Sottile crowd leapt to their feet in a spontaneous standing “O” the instant the piece ended. Oh — and young Maestro Newhouse and his players were models of self-effacing collaboration, giving their soloist all the interpretive space and sensitive support she needed, and more.
After intermission, Newhouse and company treated their entranced crowd to a fiery and explosive reading of Hector Berlioz’s notoriously quirky and challenging Symphonie Fantastique: a programmatic work that depicts — in the course of its five movements — the vaguely autobiographical tale of an artist’s infatuation with his beloved. The ill-fated romance that inspired Berlioz to write the piece may have ended disastrously, but that was nothing compared to the musical “visions” that depict the fourth movement’s “March to the Scaffold,” after the artist condemned for the murder of his beloved. To boot, the fifth movement follows with its evocation of a diabolical “Witches’ Sabbath” (attended by the murdered beloved’s spirit) that marks the artist’s condemnation in the afterlife.
The first three movements (“Reveries, Passions,” “A Ball,” and “Scene in the Country”) may be less harrowing — but even they are full of Berlioz’s hallmark quirks, sudden sonic blasts, turn-on-a-dime changes in dynamics and tempo, and fascinating orchestral effects that combine to make this work one of the most challenging pieces in the repertoire. It demands a virtuoso orchestra, as well as a conductor of exceptional abilities to bring it off successfully. I’ve heard this piece many dozens of times — yet Newhouse and company managed to foster the impression that I was hearing it for the first time.
It may not have been absolutely perfect (there were a few small rough spots towards the end) – but then I wonder if I’ve ever heard a truly flawless rendition of this sprawling and staggeringly difficult masterpiece. Our performers — clearly exhausted, yet exhilarated after it was over — got another well-deserved standing O. Bravo.
There are two more performances of this Masterworks concert. Click here for more info.