In its most ambitious Masterworks program yet, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and its guest conductor Ken Lam thrilled a Friday night audience with a glittering performance of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, a lush and introspective interpretation of Strauss' tone poem "Death and Transfiguration" and a sensitive rendition of Elgar's cello concerto, featuring Charleston's own Natalia Khoma.
The concert began with the graceful and melancholy variations of the English folk ballad "Dives and Lazarus" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Scored for string orchestra, the lilting music was delivered with finesse and sympathy under the baton of Lam, one of six candidates for music director.
Lam, who attended boarding school in England, showed an obvious affinity for the music of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. He requires no large gestures to convey large ideas, and his clear indications were no doubt welcomed by the players who had to navigate through a program of challenging late-Romantic and early 20th century music, with all its expansive phrasing and rubato, its rhythmic vitality and extreme dynamic contrasts.
During the concerto, Khoma was the clear leader; Lam needed only to listen (and watch her) carefully, and act as her conduit to the orchestra. He did just that, and a little more: he was the lightning rod that both absorbed and delivered energy, always with genuine feeling.
The concerto, written in the immediate aftermath of World War I, signifies Elgar's nostalgia for a lost epoch and his distress over the utter destruction he had just witnessed. It was played by Khoma with the verve of a Moscow Conservatory-trained artist, but also with a discipline of technique only the finest musicians display. Her command was total during the mournful first movement, the flashy second movement, the sweet aria-like third movement and the robust finale. At one point I noticed her locking eyes with her colleagues in the cello section to ensure they were together. The music came across as if it had been thoroughly processed intellectually as well as technically, as if Lam and the players were touring this terrain arm in arm.
This became especially evident with the Strauss. "Death and Transfiguration" tells the story of a sick man on his death bed reminiscing about his life even as he endures the pain of physical failings and the bliss of an ascendant soul. It is no easy piece, but Lam managed it masterfully, eliciting a wonderfully expressive performance from the orchestra without taking things too far. Indeed, his tempos seemed neither too fast nor overly expansive, and he never seemed to lose sight of the big picture, driving the piece forward toward its ecstatic end.
As if this weren't rewarding enough, the orchestra then presented the Firebird Suite. Stravinsky's music might be compared to the paintings of Cezanne or early Kandinsky. One can certainly discern the familiar, whether folk tunes and tonality on the one hand, or figures and landscapes on the other hand, but things are starting to come apart.
The music is fragmenting, even as it howls and swoons, pouts and chortles. Like all good ballet music, The Firebird is filled with memorable bits, rapid-fire thematic figures and soaring melodic lines, all reminiscent of Russian folk music and remarkably evocative. This ballet, like all of Stravinsky's ballets, is as close to textual storytelling as one can get without actually using words.
The story is a folkloric fantasy about power, love and loyalty. King Kaschei, aided by his special sequestered egg, tries to stop Ivan from marrying the most beautiful of 13 enchanted princesses, but the magical firebird helps the prince destroy Kaschei, which releases the captives, clearing the way for connubial bliss and celebration.
The ballet, an early work by Stravinsky, was met with resounding success and marked the beginning of a fruitful partnership with the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The Charleston Symphony performed the second of three versions of the suite, put together by Stravinsky in 1919.
Lam and the orchestra worked hard to illuminate all the many features of the score - its chromaticism, bright fiery bursts, elegant melodic lines and angular harmonies. Nothing felt rushed or gratuitous or out of balance. The recording of Stravinsky conducting his Firebird Suite makes for an interesting comparison: The composer preferred to speed things along and emphasize effect over detail. But Lam's interpretation was broader, fuller and subtler. It was as if he relied on multiple spotlights with narrow aim rather than one big, wide light, and he allowed for the beams to penetrate into the depths of the orchestra.
In its early stages, the piece had an almost English pastoral feel. That gave way to Russian flare (the influence of Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov was noticable) and primitive rhythms that foreshadow "The Rite of Spring."
For me, a big fan of 20th and 21st century music, this was a real treat. I hope the Charleston Symphony will do more with this vast repertoire. Many of these works now are considered masterpieces of the classical music canon, and many more surely will become known as masterpieces, yet they are not performed enough or sufficiently appreciated.
Tchaikovsky and Beethoven are wonderful, and their music must be kept alive, but the task of an excellent orchestra is, in part, to provide opportunities for more recent composers to have their music performed, and to give audiences a chance to hear these great works. Let's hope our symphony makes this a priority.
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