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Review: After a pandemic hiatus, Charleston Symphony begins anew at the Gaillard Center

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Ken Lam (copy) (copy)

The Charleston Symphony Orchestra's Ken Lam, who conducted a "Beethoven's Beginnings" Masterworks program this past weekend that launched the 2020-21 season. File/Charleston Symphony/Provided

Ludwig van Beethoven was a late bloomer.

By the time he rolled out his Symphony No. 1, he was pushing 30. Compared to the wunderkinds of yesteryear like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote his first symphony at the age of 8, the German behemoth was notably long in the tooth when he premiered the work in 1800.

The 2020-21 season of the Charleston Symphony was a bit of a late bloomer itself due to the pandemic. Before the great late lockdown, the organization was gearing up to launch a celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday with an ambitious aim to perform all nine of the composer's symphonies.

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When COVID-19 caused a reconsideration, the CSO surveyed subscribers on various options, who relayed emphatically that they would very much like the show to go on with live performances if at all possible.

Thus, the CSO forged ahead with a season of live and livestream performances entitled "Ode to Joy." Adjusting accordingly to ensure safety, orchestra and audience sizes were trimmed, and two of the nine symphonies, Symphony No. 4 and No. 9, were scrapped when their performance requirements were deemed unsuitable for social distancing.

With the plan set, the orchestra was good to go with the recalibrated season opening two weeks ago, or that was until a COVID case among the crew at Charleston Gaillard Center postponed them one week more. Last Saturday, that long-awaited launch took flight — the first before a live audience in the Gaillard's Martha and John M. Rivers Performance Hall since their joyous go with Ranky Tanky in March brought down the house, which then closed its doors.

The first of its Masterworks concerts, last weekend's “Beethoven’s Beginnings” program featured Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2, separated by a middle work by contemporary American composer Jennifer Higdon entitled "To The Point."

To an audience of three dozen-plus masked, spaced patrons, a similarly arranged orchestra offered new beginnings to Charleston audiences craving live music, something Executive Director Michael Smith flagged in this welcome.

The timing continued to be of note, with the matinee going up within an hour of the presidential election being called. While that topic was not broached on stage, a program surrounding historic beginnings was apt for a nascent administration, and for this critic the significance resonated through the ensuing tradition of all in the hall singing the national anthem.

From the looks of a beaming conductor Ken Lam, who had gleefully charged the podium, it was clear that he was as game as the survey respondents to finally unleash said live music throughout the months-long stilled halls.

The lesser known Symphony No. 1 is a notably woodwind-rich work that relegates the strings to pizzicato. Crisp and convivial, the winds released a welcome breath of fresh air after a week's worth of Twitter's election cacophony. Lam, as he is wont to do, offered a tidbit to telegraph Beethoven's string tease of violin scales, likening them to that feeling of reaching repeatedly for a tempting piece of fried chicken dangled by a mother but forever out of grasp.

From there, Jennifer Higdon's "To The Point" amped up the energy more still with five minutes of unbridled charge. Informed by Impressionist paintings in response to works by Ravel and Debussy, the plunky pizzicato this time was urgent and emphatic, insistent and foreboding, an uncanny choice for the country's complex, high-stakes mood.

For a giddy kicker, the orchestra then took on Symphony No. 2, Beethoven's 1803 work of which composer Hector Berlioz once famously said "the symphony is smiling throughout." True, the compositional will toward bliss got ample attitudinal pushback from the ominous drag of bass and cello. Exuberant optimism, however, at last prevailed with a trumpet bursting through, glorious and bright.

So, yes, in format the production was appropriately pandemic-tentative, erring on the side of caution in its numbers and protocols. At the same time, the CSO's commitment to go on was utterly affirming, no small feat given that many orchestras around the country have elected to completely kibosh such efforts.

Unlike Lam's achingly elusive fried chicken, this live music was delivered with equal measures of sheer delight and stellar artistry to its keenly craving patrons. What's more, the CSO is now recording these efforts with the aim of future distribution, an orchestral goodie bag that patrons can later relish at home as a midnight snack.

Either way, this is as clear as its culminating trumpet. Against formidable odds, joy abides with Charleston Symphony, who are primed to sound its hopeful, ecstatic blare. 

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.