Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra

Spoleto Festival Director of Orchestral Activities and Resident Conductor John Kennedy leads the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.

Saturday night at the Gaillard Center an event titled “You Are Mine Own” presented two late-Romantic works with original staging by the renowned director Atom Egoyan, winner of many prestigious awards and prizes. The work also incorporated video elements produced by Cameron Davis and lighting designed by Jonathan Spencer.

Chairs for the orchestra were placed behind a scrim, onto which clasped hands were projected. A steam radiator and a chair sat in front. Soprano Natalia Pavlova began the performance by sitting and holding a flute. A talented string quartet—Autumn Chodorowski, Alexa Ciciretti, Andrew François and Sodam Lim—performed an unknown piece while the orchestra players took their places—and none too quietly either.

Once seated and settled, the “Lyric Suite” for string quartet by Alban Berg began, while Pavlova and her baritone counterpart Alexander Dobson moved around the stage, in front of and behind the scrim. Berg’s music is not for everyone, but this piece, while dissonant, is nothing like his later works and was actually quite lovely and sensitively played.

After the final movement, conductor John Kennedy took the podium to perform the third movement again, in an arrangement for string orchestra. Strangely, the segue was interrupted by the orchestra tuning, which disassociated the quartet from the transcription. It was the first of many such distractions.

Once again the musicians rescued the evening. Alexander Zemlinsky’s imaginative and lush “Lyric Symphony” was played with passion, the sound rich and colorful. Dobson has a flexible voice, capable of penetrating highs and strong lows. He was mostly able to hold his own against the large orchestra. Unfortunately, on more than a few occasions, Kennedy failed to rein in the players — though, to be fair, Zemlinsky’s orchestration doesn’t help — and Dobson was drowned out.

True to form, Pavlova made the stage and the music her own. She sings with intense fervor and feeling, and she was able to soar above the thick chords and heavy percussion. Her voice is both brilliant and supple, and even extreme high notes weren’t forced or shrill. Had there been a character in Zemlinsky’s music, with texts taken from “The Gardener” by Rabindranath Tagore in a German translation by Hans Effenberger, she would have easily brought her to life.

The students in the Spoleto Festival orchestra never fail to impress or please, and Zemlinsky’s musical embodiment of High Romanticism was played with the excitement and nuance the exquisite music demands.

I can’t really speak to any visual elements after the third movement because I closed my eyes in order to enjoy the magnificent music. In the program description, Egoyan states that “what we present tonight is almost an opera.” Well, that is beyond a stretch. Berg’s quartet is hardly programmatic and Zemlinsky composed a song cycle. Abstract video, catchy lighting and a few random props do not an opera make.

Reviewer David Friddle has doctorates in organ and choral conducting and directs a professional chamber choir in Rochester, Minn.