If I were to name the top handful of classical music’s overplayed “warhorses,” Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 would definitely be among them. When Spoleto USA first announced this year’s programs, I groaned, “not again!” But when I saw that pianist extraordinaire Stephen Prutsman, whose work in the festival’s Bank of America Chamber Series I’ve been joyfully following for years, would be performing the piece, I decided not to jump to premature conclusions. My wait-and-see attitude paid off, because, after last night’s Festival Concert, I realized that, by golly, I’d fallen in love with this music all over again.

But let me start at the beginning, with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra’s accomplished and stirring rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka, the second of the three “Russian ballet” scores that catapulted the young composer to fame and fortune in the early 1900s. Following not long after his lush, late-romantic Firebird ballet score, this fanciful tale of a clown-puppet come to life marked a transition of sorts to his (then) radically modern Rite of Spring music that prompted fistfights in the audience at its premiere. But Petrushka, with its complex, shifting rhythms, bitonality, and  “burlesque”-style evocations of dancing puppets flopping bonelessly around onstage, was also music of an entirely new sort (though folks never came to fisticuffs over it).

This concert completed a sort of orchestral cycle at Spoleto, as festival concerts in recent years have blown us away with magnificent performances of the other two ballet scores. With such standards to uphold, I very much doubted that Spoleto would let us down on this one. Thus my expectations were pretty high when the slight figure of Anne Manson mounted the podium to conduct her “orchestra of virtuosos” in the piece. Besides, her impressive credentials and the positive advance buzz had fueled high hopes all around. And neither she, nor her wonderful players, disappointed.

The lady surely knows her way around Stravinsky. I was immediately struck, not only with her energetic conducting style and sense of benevolent authority, but with the glorious sounds and crisp execution that she drew from her gifted minions right from the start. This is highly complex and virtuosic music, with multiple harmonic layers and crackling, ever-shifting meters and rhythmic intensity. But by dint of her relentless eye contact with her band, slashing baton technique, firm beat-control and meticulous cuing (not to mention her endearing “podium dance”), she let no part of this performance fall through the cracks. Add the commitment and enthusiasm of her brilliant young musicians, most of whom were no doubt playing this music for the first time, and the net result was a performance of unforgettable drive, excitement and droll appeal. Brava, Maestra!  

So, then — how the heck do you ride an old warhorse? The answer to that burning question, to my way of thinking, is: simply to make it your own. Do things with it that nobody’s ever done with it before. I must’ve heard P.I. Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous Piano Concerto No. 1 a hundred times or more since I came of age in Vienna, thrilling to Van Cliburn’s ultra-famous Tchaikovsky Competition-winning rendition of it. But I pretty much got sick and tired of it by age 30. But this evening’s rendition of it brought me back into the worldwide fold of the work’s diehard fans. And that is largely thanks to the way pianist Stephen Prutsman handled it.

In this day and age of cookie-cutter pianism, in which even many of the world’s top keyboard talents all seem to sound the same, works like this one cry out for unconventional treatment in order to make it stand out in the ears and minds of jaded folks like me. And Prutsman certainly gave us something different. I’ve long known that he has technique to burn; there’s not a piano piece on earth he can’t play, and spectacularly well. But I’ve also long since realized that he was a musician of particularly eclectic and wide-ranging tastes and influences who almost always brings something new and different to his performances of even worn-out music that makes people go ho-hum.   

For starters, Prutsman (no doubt in conspiracy with Manson) took considerable license with tempos and precise placement of notes. I was first taken aback when I heard him make several entrances a tiny fraction of a beat behind the orchestra. In post-mortem discussion afterward, more than one listener cried “foul: sloppy playing!” at this apparent practice — especially since he did it quite a few times. But once I got used to it, I realized that this was probably an intentional interpretive device, a purposeful musical decision designed to enhance the freewheeling, ultra-romantic sort of rendition that these musicians were seeking to deliver. That’s how pianists used to play this piece a hundred years ago, before fussy listeners and critics began to define performance quality in terms of uniform, on-the-dot musical “togetherness.” Such metronomically mechanical, ultra-precise playing can be boring, especially when you’ve heard it done the same way dozens of times before. But this interpretation was anything but boring.

From there, let’s talk about risk-taking in performance. Most concerto soloists try to play it safe, keeping their renditions well within the limits of their abilities. Perish forbid that they should miss a note or two, or sound rushed. But Prutsman and friends obviously pushed their limits here, allowing themselves to (GASP!) get carried away, casting all precautions aside, and letting the musical chips fall where they may. This was reckless, devil-may-care playing, on the bare edge of control. And that’s the kind of playing that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, at a fever pitch of excitement, and holding their collective breath until their final sighs of dazed relief at the end, while marveling that — wow — they managed to pull off a great performance. Thank you, Ms. Manson, and (especially) Mr. Prutsman. This music means something to me again.

This program’s order was a bit unconventional, in that most concerts present the oldest music first, then move on to the more modern offerings in chronological order. Here, it was done in reverse order, with Stravinsky first, his Russian predecessor Tchaikovsky next, and finally, the so-called “Farewell” Symphony. No. 45, out of his total output of 106 works in the genre (most think it’s “only” 104, but two more were discovered after the original listing was published). But there was method in the festival planners’ madness. You see, this was the final major musical event to take place at Gaillard Auditorium before it is closed down for the long-planned major renovation that is scheduled to begin very shortly. How best could Spoleto say goodbye to the facility that has hosted most of its major operas and larger concerts since the festival came to town over 30 years ago?

There’s a touching story behind the piece’s title. Haydn spent most of his career in the royal service of several Princes of the Austro-Hungarian house of Esterházy. The royal orchestra (directed by Haydn) would often travel with him from the family’s Vienna residence to their country palace in Hungary for extended stays. On one such interlude, the reigning Prince decided to extend his stay by several weeks, causing a definite morale problem in the ranks of the orchestra, whose members were there without their families. Haydn to the rescue: in a concert featuring this work, he instructed his players (as the work drew to its close) to blow out the candles on their music stands, and leave the stage with their instruments by ones and twos. Even Haydn left the stage near the very end, leaving only a pair of violins to finish the work. The good prince got the hint, and sent his orchestra home the next day.

And so it happened here. As the final movement of what Mendelssohn called “a curiously melancholy little piece” wound down, our players (and finally, Ms. Manson) quietly departed the stage under gradually dimmed lights. Thus ended not only a dynamite concert, but an era; spanning an incredibly rich, decades-long run of inspired artistic performances at Charleston’s premier performance space. We can hardly wait until the new Gailliard Center, which promises to be one of the world’s finest performance venues, is again open for business in about three years.