CSO Masterworks presents first candidate, robust performance

Perry So

Well, that was fun.

The Charleston Symphony Orchestra presented its first of six Masterworks series programs this weekend, featuring music director candidate Perry So, an up-and-coming young talent with a vigorous interest in plumbing the depths of the music he conducts and a contageously energetic style on the podium.

Friday night’s performance, therefore, was an audition. But it was much more than that. To be sure, the symphony players, board members and benefactors were paying close attention, but So, too, was doing some assessing, and his confidence in the orchestra and exuberant leadership clearly inspired the players to give it their all, and then some.

The program’s main event was Dvorak’s 7th Symphony, a relatively compact example of zealous Romanticism, replete with blaring brass and swooping strings, big dynamic contrasts, hints of folk melody and lush harmonies that tug on one’s heart-strings.

It was great to hear this full-throated rendition. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the orchestra play so, well, LOUD. At moments I nearly confused it with that other CSO — the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is so famous for its big brass sound, cultivated under Sir Georg Solti all those years ago.

So, who is only 32, demonstrated a crystal-clear technique and an enthusiasm that occasionally produced an improvised percussion part when he briefly went airborn then descended upon the wooden podium with a thump. But he easily managed to elicit gloriously hushed passages, too. Quiet though they were, these sections nevertheless shimmered with intensity, helping to ensure a certain consistency across the entire symphony.

If anything was missing it was the gradations in the middle. Rarely did I sense any relaxation, any easing of the Dvorak drive, any literal or proverbial breath. And despite the Bohemian flavor, the clever arpeggiated flourishes, the lilting melodies and forceful explosions of sound, there was something about the Dvorak that left me a tad unsatisfied, something cartoonish, Disney-like, as if the composer were painting a canvas using only primary colors (with a touch of Czechloslavakian umber).

But that’s just me. The symphony evidently provided sufficient thrill to send, upon its conclusion, the receptive audience to its feet.

Musically speaking, I preferred the rarely heard orchestral versions of six famous Schubert songs. The originals, written for voice and piano, are among the repertoire’s most precious gems, familiar to many ears. They are examples of a sort of minimalist genius, an ability by Schubert to encapsulate in just a few vocal phrases, harmonic tonalities and musical gestures certain fundamental truths about the human experience.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Luiken, a voice teacher at Charleston Southern University and an accomplished performer well-known to local audiences, provided a superb rendering of these tunes that enlarged them sufficiently without going overboard. Perhaps the most “operatic” of these unoperatic songs was “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” set to a narrative poem by Goethe in which a young woman pines for her lover, Faust, exhibiting a bit of the craziness that’s apparently rubbed off on her. That song was orchestrated by Liszt, who sent the strings spinning like Gretchen’s wheel, to great effect.

Four intimate songs followed, and each performance showed the orchestra’s skill at sensitive accompaniment and So’s admiration for these miniature masterpieces. Luiken was particularly impressive singing “Du bist die Ruh,” “An die Musik” and “Nacht und Traume,” for which she unfurled long, expressive phrases. Her tone was warm and clear, and she seemed comfortable in both the low and high parts of her range.

Perhaps best of all were her characterizations. Singing German Lieder, with its Romantic poetry, requires an ability to convey not only the essence of the words but sometimes the specifics of a dialogue or a sensation (passion, remorse) or an observation (a wintry landscape, a fish caught in the river). Luiken managed all this with aplomb — and without overdoing it.

She ended her set with the chilling and rightfully famous “Erlkoenig” (orchestrated by Berlioz), which includes a cast of three characters (father, son and phantom), a galloping horse through a dark wood and a repeating nine-note figure in the strings. The invisible spirit falls in love with the young boy and tries to woo him before threatening to take him by force; the boy begs his father for protection; the father, baffled, attempts to reassure the child, clutching him tightly as they race through the forest, only to discover at journey’s end that the boy is dead.

The concert opened with a terrific “Manfred” overture by Schumann, its swooping, undulating lines, big brass blasts and beautifully controlled dynamic drive expressing Manfred’s inconsolable love-agony (and ultimate suicide).

The piece is based on Lord Byron’s poem, and So, who earned an undergraduate degree in comparative literature, revelled in the bookish references, delivering an impassioned performance that seemed to really be about something.

The evidence of his effect on the orchestra, and on the audience, was abundant.