Sitting in the Dock Street Theatre, a friend turned to me and asked if I’d ever fantasized about traveling back in time with music from the modern era tucked under my arm and playing it for one of the old masters.
We imagined transporting Darius Milhaud’s “The Ox on the Roof,” which was performed with a great sense of fun by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Tuesday evening, to 18th century Austria and having Mozart take a listen.
It might have freaked him out: that bi-tonality, that rhythmic pulse, those exotic Brazilian melodies. It might have challenged his ear, it might have changed the history of Western classical music.
But Mozart’s stuff was pretty good as it was. Even when he was just 22 and in Paris coping with his mother’s death, he managed to produce a delightful little symphony, No. 31 in D major, and even rewrite the second movement when the first version failed to impress his otherwise enthusiastic French audience.
On Tuesday, conductor Yuriy Bekker asked the audience to vote for its favorite of the two versions. It selected the second, more lively one, though I can’t help think that the original was more honest in its delicate phrasing and slow, open gestures.
The concert began with a rendition of Rossini’s famous “Barber of Seville” Overture, performed by the symphony core (essentially a chamber orchestra) and conducted by Bekker with a pleasing familiarity, though it lacked enough electricity.
The highlight of the night was the new piano concerto by Uruguayan composer Florencia Di Concilio, which was written for her College of Charleston teacher, Enrique Graf.
Graf gave the concerto its U.S. premiere as Di Concilio listened from the audience, and it was a crowd-pleaser. He played with command. Divided into two discernable sections, the piece began with a graceful, languorous five-note motif that recurred in various forms, built up to a dense, jazzy, chordal rollick, then gave way to a hypnotic section with the violins gliding their bows across the strings as the piano played repeated triads.
The second part featured cascading figures in the piano, and then ascending phrases, dance-like themes and propulsive rhythm. As Graf played staccato figures, the oboe offered a lilting dance tune in return. It was a mix of styles, from American jazz to neo-Romanticism and it brought the audience to its feet.
Graf’s control was admirable. Each note in an often thick texture rang clear. The softer passages were played with sensitivity; the bombastic sections were presented with flair. Catchy tunes were in short supply, but that wasn’t really the point of the piece. It was constructed with abbreviated musical figures, and was more a set of grand gestures than a series of melodies.
It should be said that the symphony’s programming is hitting just the right notes: It combines familiar music (Mozart and Rossini) with unfamiliar but very interesting pieces by lesser-known composers. It’s easy to rely on the standards, safe to revel in the appreciation of the standard symphony patronage, but it’s much more fun, if a little risky, to mix it up a bit and introduce listeners to works they don’t know.
A vast repertoire of 20th and 21st century music is lying in wait, and Charleston’s music lovers are certainly capable of appreciating it.
I hope the symphony continues to offer inventive programming and embrace the risks. For this is how classical music is kept alive.