The Charleston Symphony Orchestra offered an all-Russian program Friday night in celebration of youth. And it was thrilling.
Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta led the musicians with just the right verve and finesse, letting the Romantic repertoire they performed shimmer brightly and sing clearly with little sign of excessive melodrama or gravitas.
Three works, three exciting rides.
The show began with an enlarged orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s Selections from “Swan Lake.” Joining the regulars were 11 high school string players, winners of the symphony’s “Share the Stage” competition. They fit right in. Under Falletta’s eloquent leadership, the familiar tunes soared forth, enriched by the gorgeous orchestration and nuanced musicianship.
In the Sottile Theatre, the sound rang out clearly; fortissimo passages even produced a welcomed echo, as if the theater were asserting itself as a proper place to host such concerts.
The next thrill came in the form of Charleston’s own Micah McLaurin, the 18-year-old piano wunderkind, who dared to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with its sonorous opening, frantic fingering and arpeggiated runs that seem to put pretty much every piano key to work.
The piece is a little unusual in that the solo part often accompanies the orchestra, whose instruments carry the melodies, but it is nevertheless a challenge to play. And McLaurin, sitting upright, met the challenge head on. It was the first time he’s played this concerto on stage.
His technique is superb, his phrasing excellent, his dynamics just right. Falletta followed him with panache, providing the requisite support and balance; the orchestra played with sensitivity, doing everything in its power to allow McLaurin to shine.
And shine he did. At the conclusion of the Rachmaninoff, the audience jumped to its feet in appreciation, for it had witnessed the beginning of something special. And McLaurin extended his own gratitude by playing as an encore Chopin’s Etude Op. 25, No. 1, a flowing, very difficult piece that keeps the melody in the right-hand pinky the whole time. Beautiful. And no wonder: McLaurin names Chopin as his favorite composer.
This young man is at the start of a long concert career. It will be a delight to watch him mature musically as he gains more experience.
The program concluded with a youthful rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Like the previous pieces, this is music many listeners become acquainted with as they are first dipping their toes into the classical repertoire. We have lived with these tunes for a long time, so it can be a little risky for an orchestra to present such an old war horse. The probability that it will come across as pleasant and familiar, but not revelatory, is high.
Well, that didn’t happen. Falletta found a way to make it fresh. She didn’t resort to over-slow tempi; she wasn’t taken in by Tchaikovsky’s schmaltz; she didn’t let the orchestra’s tone get too thick.
Instead, there was dialogue between the sections, sharing, cooperation, brotherly love. The symphony, which plays with the theme of fate, breathed like a flowering plant, leaning into the sun and opening its blooms wide. It was robust without being bombastic, lyrical without being syrupy. And the soloists all shined admirably.
Thus youth conquered fate. And Charleston, that old war horse of a city, was renewed by the gift of music.