REviewBY BILL GUDGERSpecial to The Post and Courier
The task was to combine the traditional festival concert featuring the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra with an event Friday night to bid farewell to the Gaillard Auditorium before it undergoes its two-to-three year renovation.
The orchestra roster this year is not large enough for one of the big Mahler symphonies, and there is no music director for the festival.
Conductor Anne Manson was brought in to lead the orchestra, presumably made more cohesive by its days in the pit playing for Philip Glass’ “Kepler.” A couple of Russian blockbusters were chosen — Stravinsky’s and Tchaikovsky’s, plus a special piece by Haydn.
Local music lovers and festival regulars will all have their own special memories of music heard in the Gaillard. No opera this year, and an understated choral/orchestral concert featuring Durufle’s Requiem.
Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” is just over 100 years old. It premiered in 1911 as a ballet, and has often been transferred to the concert hall, especially in the 1947 revision we heard Friday night.
This version, made partly for copyright purposes, retains the bulk of the excitement of the 1911 score, done for a slightly smaller orchestra and featuring more from the piano.
The piano part is special in “Petrushka,” since the work began on the piano headed perhaps toward a concerto-like composition representing the puppet Petrushka. Fine solo work from the piano, English horn, flute and trumpet made this performance special.
Manson got a variously somber and bright sound out of the orchestra, which clearly enjoyed playing for her.
Her conducting is mostly minimal, but with an unfortunate tendency to slash through the air with her left arm as a way of cuing important accents in the music.
She was wise to choose Stravinsky’s quiet ending to the work. Supertitles with bits of the story would have been useful, since the music depicts the story and scenes of the ballet with originality, something hard to discern if you are not familiar with the plot.
The orchestra required for the Tchaikovsky is smaller than the Stravinsky, so a number of players and their chairs and stands were cleared out during intermission, leaving the stage a little more empty.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, premiered in Boston of all places in 1875, is an iconic warhorse of the orchestral repertory, forever connected to such players as Van Cliburn.
It was going to be interesting to see what Stephen Prutsman, a festival regular in the Chamber Music Series, could do to make the concerto fresh without tampering too much with Tchaikovsky’s score.
In the main he succeeded, rising to the technical challenges of the work, coaxing a lot of sound out the Steinway piano (sometimes by overuse of the pedal), and winning for himself one of the loudest ovations I ever remember in the Gaillard.
But there was something curiously uneven about the performance, some problems of ensemble, and some fast tempos that just didn’t work.
The codas (endings) of the outer movements must be hair-raising — not only fast, but made to force you to the edge of your seat. This did not work in Friday night’s performance.
The slow movement was perhaps the best since it began quietly with a lovely them beautifully played on the flute and later moved to some filigree textures in the piano.
There was still much to like about the outer movements, and the famous opening theme (which curiously never returns) was grand.
After more clearing of the stage, about two dozen performers gave us — what else? — Joseph Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony.”
Symphony No. 45 is in F-sharp minor and is a work of melancholy. Haydn used the music to coax his patron to let the musicians return home from an over extended stay in the summer palace to the their winter location where their families had been left behind.
Just when the final movement is whirling to a close there is a sudden shift to slower music in the other-worldly key of F-sharp major. Different instruments get a brief solo, and gradually they leave the stage until only two violins are left. The music fades away.
Just as I feared, when the conductor also left (Haydn would have been playing the violin in the original performance which would have not had a conductor in the modern sense) the audience laughed, ruined the mood, and covered up a lot of what was still being played.
The style of the Haydn was the weakest part of the evening, unfortunately, and after the strain of the other works, the two horns in the Haydn had some major problems with their (admittedly high) parts.
A successful evening overall, enjoyable for the most part, if perhaps something which looked a little better on paper than it was in reality.
Manson and the players deserve our thanks for hard work and some wonderful moments in this special farewell to the Gaillard.