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Review: Charleston Symphony is up and playing, with historic strings attached

Composer Edward Hart and violinist Yuriy Bekker

Edward Hart, composer of "Under an Indigo Sky," with violinist Yuriy Bekker, for whom Hart composed the work. Heather Moran/Provided

If I could conjure any possible talk back surrounding Charleston Symphony’s “Mozart in the Lowcountry” concert of this past weekend, it would entail channeling Andrea Guarneri to sit on a panel with the Charleston ancestors of composer Edward Hart. I'd pick a date, say, some time around the 1670s.

In doing so, Guarneri, the maker of the rare 1638 violin in the hands of CSO concertmaster Yuriy Bekker, could swap notes with the forebears of the composer of "Under an Indigo Sky," the string concerto for which Bekker served as soloist — as well as the inspiration for Hart's work. That way, the panel could muse over impressions of how their progeny of wood or blood wound up on the same stage at the Gaillard Center centuries later.

Hart's work served as the centerpiece for Charleston Symphony's season opener. It took to the Gaillard Center stage for two performances, quite literally and resonantly setting the tone for a season that is particularly rich in its celebration of our region. 

After music director and conductor Ken Lam rallied the crowd off its feet with a rousing string-centric rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the program got under way with a work by American George Walker, the first African American composer to be honored with a Pulitzer Prize and who died last year.

Wistful yet measured, his hallmark "Lyric for Strings" embodied both elegance and gravitas, first gently, then wholly, working my own heartstrings, opening up to be nothing short of elegiac. It thus served as a moving illustration of the potential of a work for strings, an apt pick for an evening that so celebrated them. 

From there, we shifted south to our own state for "Under an Indigo Sky," Hart's string concerto that debuted with the CSO during its 2011-12 season and that casts a wide sonic net over South Carolina by way of three distinct, yet cohesive, movements. 

The first, "Fast Flowing Rivers - Columbia and the Midlands," rushes and surges through the bustling place to which it pays tribute, with Bekker as soloist leading the charge of strings, which were at times punctuated by post-raindrop plunks and percussive slapstick cracks.

The work then travels down to the Lowcountry for its second movement, "Warm Salt Air - Charleston and the Coast," easing its tempos to luxuriate in that thick briny atmosphere, like we do down here on a warm Charleston day. It succeeded fully in evoking this terrain, figuratively sending me out of the climate-controlled Gaillard to revel in our region's steamy streets.

The third and final movement, "Misty Blue Horizon - Greenville and the Upstate," announced itself with church bells and a picked-up pace, which then wended in and around itself again in an attenuated, meditative reflection. Hart, after all, is a Charlestonian, so it's no shock that he'd default to subtler, ruminative rhythms.

Throughout the work, the resonant collagen was Bekker, who managed by way of his storied set of strings to vigorously, magnificently, masterfully travel the whole of the state, displaying his evident gifts with virtuosic verve and depth.

The Mozart mentioned in the program's title was his "Symphony 39 in E-flat major, K.543," a work in four movements. Before it began, Lam offered context that the composer created it along with 40 and 41.

From the get-go, this symphony is all business, with the orchestra now asserting itself in the first movement, "Adagio - Allegro," gaining rich warmth in its second, "Andante con Moto," and picking up with a folk-inflected minuet for "Menuetto: Allegretto." 

However, as Lam pointed out, it is the fourth movement, "Allegro," that most distinguishes the work. Just when I was craving that feeling of elation and gratification that only live classical music can produce, the movement surprisingly stirs things up.

Lam was leading the party, having the time of his life whipping those strings into a plucky whorl that was pure cheeky joy. There was something utterly contemporary about his gleeful podium jigs. While they energized the orchestra, they did the same for the audience, too, bringing us back to something that seemed utterly present, Guarneri and ancestors and all.

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.

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