The near-collapse of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra three years ago prompted not only a frantic attempt to remain solvent but also a concerted effort to remain relevant.
The organization sought input from the community, made structural changes and modified its programming. One new feature introduced was a chamber orchestra series at the Dock Street Theatre that showcased the solo and small-ensemble work of local musicians.
Inspired in part by the success of the Spoleto Festival’s springtime chamber music series, the Charleston Symphony strives to make this form of classical music available to audiences during the regular season.
On Friday, CSO string players offered two versions of the Four Seasons — Vivaldi’s famous set of concerti, played by violinist Herbert Greenberg, and Astor Piazzolla’s Buenos Aires version, played by Greenberg’s former student, CSO concertmaster Yuriy Bekker.
It happened they performed on sister Stradivarius violins: the Ex-Nachez of 1686 (lent to Bekker by John and Winifred Constable) and the Jean Becker of 1685. The two instruments likely were hewn from the same piece of wood, and both had a sweet, vibrant sound.
The Four Seasons is Vivaldi’s most famous work. It’s heard so often that players can find it a challenge to keep it fresh and exciting. Sometimes they do extravagant things, stretching or speeding up the tempi, exaggerating the dynamics or over-emphasizing the contrasts between soloist and string orchestra. Sometimes the solo instrument is switched out, or the orchestration is tampered with.
Not Friday night. Greenberg’s approach was modest and pleasant. This was a respectful and temperate — some might have said a timid — rendering of the popular piece. Intonation sometimes faltered, and once or twice it seemed the ensemble failed to gel. Nevertheless, Greenberg wrung out a healthy dose of lyricism and verve.
Bekker, instead, played the tango version of the seasons — with gusto. It was difficult not to tap one’s foot or nod to the syncopated beat. The music, originally written for Piazzolla’s band and skillfully arranged for string orchestra by the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, was alternately dramatic and playful. Bekker scratched and plucked, soared and swooped, clearly enjoying himself.
The Buenos Aires romp in this arrangement quoted Vivaldi, which lent the piece a weird and wonderful duplicity.
To highlight both the teacher-student pairing and the two Stradivarius instruments, Bekker and Greenberg played the gorgeous second movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto as an encore.
The interchanging phrases gave patrons a chance to hear both instruments clearly, to join in a special shared moment between the young virtuoso and the older maestro, and to delight in the fine musicianship that brought Bach to life.
The performance will be repeated tonight at the Dock Street Theatre.