The Festival Concerts are among the most highly anticipated events of the Spoleto Festival. It's a great chance to let the full orchestra shine on stage, out from the darkness of the opera pits. There's always a big featured work from the great orchestra classics. This year, the first concert Wednesday night at the Sottile Theatre gave us Bela Bartok's iconic Concerto for Orchestra from 1943.
Conducting on only a week's notice was Joseph Young, a Goose Creek native who is having a ascendant career. Next week his appointment as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra begins. He was already in town with the festival as assistant conductor for Janacek's "Kat'a Kabanova."
Bartok's score is called a "concerto" because he wanted each section and instrument in the orchestra to be featured as if a soloist.
Young let the orchestra go at this full tilt, and the skill of Bartok's scoring made sure the more subtle portions worked just fine.
One might have asked for a bit more humor in the second movement ("Game of Pairs") and a bit more nighttime eeriness in the slow movement (Bartok specialized in evoking sounds of the night). But when it came down to the wire, especially in the climactic moments, Young held things tight and let it rip.
There was enough sound to fill two Sottiles which would be about the capacity of the new Gaillard Center concert hall, set to open next year.
Two other 20th and 21st century works formed the first half of the concert.
Premiered by Arturo Toscanini, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings (1938) has become a solemn elegy for almost any occasion. Young led a calm almost understated reading of the score.
John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007) could not contrast more with his oratorio-opera "El Nino," also heard at this festival.
Adams' opera "Doctor Atomic" gives us Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic test in New Mexico (1945). Drawn from the overture and other portions of the opera, the symphony begins with a blast of percussion and brass, and finally settles into the music for Oppenheimer's aria "Batter my heart, three-person'd God."
The vocal line in this concert version is assigned to the trumpet, played with great strength on Wednesday. Notable contributions also came from the principal horn and tympanist.
To say that the effect of this music was electrifying doesn't do it justice.
It is one of Adams' greatest accomplishments and was well served by Young and his Spoleto band.
Altogether, it was a fine evening for the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and its leader. We hope to welcome Young back to show us more when he has a little more time for preparation.
The orchestra returns to the Sottile on Tuesday with a Beethoven-inspired program.
William Gudger is professor emeritus of music at the College of Charleston.