Music usually presents themes, then develops those themes, restates them in various ways and, ultimately, reintroduces them at the end in bold fashion.
Concert programs often have themes, too, themes that are introduced and developed and reiterated. The theme of this week's Charleston Symphony Orchestra concert was the composer Liszt, who appeared three times during this last Masterworks program of the season, first as himself, then as the mentor of a young colleague and finally as a model for a brash Frenchman with some wild ideas.
The concert, confidently led by music director candidate Michael Butterman, was an invigorating assertion of two favorites of the Romantic repertoire - Liszt's "Les Preludes" and Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor - and a solid rendition of Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3, also known as the Organ Symphony, for obvious reasons.
It was all big, bold, brash, energetic and exciting, from the first note to the last. There was nothing subtle about it. And the program was a reminder of why great symphonic music of this era, played well, is so satisfying. It gets the heart racing; it appeases a restless soul; it sends shivers up the spine.
It began with that symphonic poem about love and death - though I confess neither of those human experiences came to mind as I listened to the Charleston Symphony's bright, no-nonsense performance. Perhaps I was too fascinated by the flurry of arpeggios, the thematic transformations, the in-your-face brass, the expansive finish. It left one tempted to whoop and holler.
After the "Les Preludes," Butterman explained the programming while stagehands put the piano in place for Marina Lomazov, a Ukrainian-American blessed with long arms and graceful fingers. Her parents must have taken one look at the newborn Marina and rushed out to buy a piano.
The solo part begins right away, and the charismatic Lomazov signaled her command with those first bold chords. She played with a pleasing mixture of audacity and elegance. She had no trouble with the double octaves, no matter how fast she played them, and the flowing arpeggios that required she reach both ends of the keyboard in quick sequence. She looked a little like a ballet dancer extending her arms to second position during a jump of turn. Those long bones served her well.
The start of the concerto was so exciting the audience could not resist applauding after the first movement. The short second movement, with its deceptive cadences and elongated melodic lines, was beautifully rendered by Lomazov and Butterman (in close collaboration). Brandon Nichols on horn often took the lead with his sweet, flowing lines.
The concerto ended in a mad fury, with strains of Nordic folk music - its rhythmic thump-thump in the left hand and vivid figures in the right - informing the last movement. You might guess it prompted a standing ovation, the kind of response that's impossible to suppress.
About Butterman: The guy's got stage presence, but he never diverts one's attention from what is happening musically. He's confident and relaxed on the podium, clearly articulating his directions, sometimes with a baton, sometimes without when hands alone work better at conveying a broader range of important signals.
He coerced robust music-making from the players while ensuring that all the details could be heard. His command was especially apparent when the orchestra played the Organ Symphony.
While the piece falls short of achieving masterpiece status (in my view), it certainly presents enough innovative melodic treatment, orchestra colors and flash to drive the listener to the edge of his seat.
Saint-Saens was an accomplished organist, and the whole piece sometimes gave me the impression that he had transcribed a grand keyboard toccata for large orchestra. Listening to the myriad effects produced by the orchestration and the Charleston Symphony players' determined performance, I visualized the old, bearded Frenchman sitting at his console, head thrown back, arms extended, and pulling out all the stops.
An actual organ participates in the cacophony, but somewhat modestly, adding fullness to the harmonic progressions and a bit of underlying drama. Saint-Saens also included a piano part in the score, which adds texture and zip, especially during the final section.
The composer loved Liszt and emulated the older man's practice of introducing a theme then transforming it in a variety of ways. There were also moments reminiscent of Beethoven - at the beginning of the allegro moderato section that begins Part Two, for example, with its repeated 16th-note pattern and strong downbeat. Saint-Saens also followed the key sequence Beethoven used in his Fifth Symphony. An homage indeed.
Though he lived to witness the dissolution of tonality (he died in 1921), Saint-Saens was a musical conservative who complained about that weird new French style advanced by Debussy and others, preferring a solidly 19th century version of voluble European Romanticism. Nothing about his Organ Symphony is refined, and nothing about the Charleston Symphony's performance of it - or the preceding two pieces - left the audience craving something more thunderous.
This was a concert full of thunder, and Butterman, Lomazov and the Charleston Symphony dug in deep and let it roar.
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