When Mayor Joe Riley made his impassioned plea in support of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra at Sundown Serenade, one of the main reasons for our dear mayor’s passion was seated close behind, waiting to play. Concert Master Yuriy Bekker consistently astounds audiences with his seemingly bottomless well of talent and an ease of performance that effortlessly communicates not only the music at hand, but also a deep and abiding love for his ability to bring forth that music. All of this was proven once again as the Ensemble of St. Clare opened Piccolo Spoleto’s Mepkin Abbey Series.

First the good news:

The concert opened with modern composer Gavin Bryars’ Incipit Vita Nova. Written at the same time as his Cadman Requiem, it celebrates the welcoming to life of a girl named Vita while never losing sight of man’s mortality. Countertenor John Cunningham’s slightly dark yet fluidly round voice sailed the shimmering dissonances and sliding chords to near perfection under Bekker’s capable direction. The trio backing our countertenor found that sweet spot of balance in Bryars’ writing, creating the sense of a much larger force heard from a distance. Excellent opening!

After our countertenor departed and the trio swelled to 10 strings (including Piccolo Spoleto Director Ellen Dressler-Moryl on cello!), Bekker gave the audience a wondrous reading of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14. Every nuance of tonal choice served its line with precision and clarity. Every shift of dynamics found its balance and ending level on a dime. There was a slight hint of an issue of tempo for the first two or three bars of the piece, but after everyone locked in, this piece became a little slice of heaven.

Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto in D minor for Oboe, Strings, & Continuo continued the fairly dark tone of this program with Mark Gainer assuming the soloist’s spot in front of the strings. The Andante spiccato pulled its sneaky time-bending tricks with aplomb. During the Adagio, one could not help but marvel at how Gainer’s warmth of tone made perfectly undulating waves as his lines rose and the chord structure fell. But the true gem of this performance lay in the Presto. The last movement revisits themes from the first, adding a hefty charge of drive, and placing it in a major key. What a vibrant way to end such a deep work!

Now the bad news:

Johannes Brahms rumination on the process of grieving, the Trio in E flat, Op. 40 for Horn, Violin & Piano, closed the program with something less than the transcendence this work can usually be counted on to inspire. Bekker and pianist Andrew Armstrong played wonderfully throughout, but the first three movements were brought almost to the point of distraction by a number of problems from Brandon Nichols and his horn. At the start of the work, one could barely hear either Bekker or Armstrong in some places. Just as the blend got under control, issues of pitch began to dog Brandon during his passing phrases. To his credit, when the melody came to him, his pitch was wonderful, and the overall effect of warm melancholy covering an untamed heart shone through, for the most part. Brandon sounded much more comfortable during the fast and loud sections of the Scherzo, but when the full gallop slowed to a trot, the issues of tuning were still rearing their heads, and a note or two cracked under that pressure. The Adagio mesto, one of Brahms’ most searing and heartfelt melodies, suffered the same up until its horn solo. Brandon nailed the solo and began to sound like a different player. Something had clicked, and with the fourth movement’s emphasis on the brio, the joy of grief ending took on more meaning than Brahms probably intended, but hey, joy is joy!