Martha & John M. Rivers Performance Hall, Charleston Gaillard Center
June 9, 2018

The classical culmination of two-and-a-half weeks music-making saw Steven Sloane helm the impressive Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. Drawn from nationwide auditions, being a member of the Festival’s resident ensemble is an opportunity for young musicians to gain significant performance experience with alumni to be found in most professional orchestras across the US and overseas. Mozart and Mahler may not be typical bedfellows, but in ideally contrasted performances, this gala concert certainly put this talented group of players through their paces.

Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. Photo © Leigh Webber

Sarajevo-born pianist Pedja Muzijevic’s elegant, direct approach in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 15 – a cheerful work in B Flat that is among the composer’s less commonly played essays in the form – seemed a reasonable choice with the opening Allegro taken at a decent pace. The orchestra accompanied with considerable sympathy, their touch appropriately light and with delicately focused contributions from woodwind and horns. Sloane took pains to keep it all airy and moving along, ensuring an ideal balance across the span of the substantial first movement. The Andante’s variations and frequent divisions sat nicely against the warmly supportive timbre of the orchestra, leading directly into the Rondo finale, which pitted a chunkier sound from the soloist against meatier orchestral tuttis. A more than decent survey of a somewhat neglected work.

If Mozart demands balance and rhythmic discipline, Mahler calls for a rather different skill set, with blend, control and emotional intent to the fore. His daring First Symphony is a ‘Titan’ not just by name but also by nature. Mahler ultimately eschewed all such titles and denied any suggestions of specific narratives, nevertheless, there’s clearly a story to be told in the four-movement behemoth, and Sloane – who it may come as no surprise to discover studied with that fine Mahlerian, Gary Bertini – set out with a strong sense of a message to convey.

Discipline is clearly embedded in this ensemble’s DNA with solos perfectly placed and delivered with confident tone. If the lead into the big ‘walking’ tune was a little penny plain, the wanderer made up for it, taking to his hiking boots at an infectious lick. Solo trumpet, oboe and flute gave special pleasure throughout the long first movement. Sloane controlled his substantial forces most successfully whenever Mahler gives the music its head, meaning that there were the odd lapses in tricky transitional passages, but the first big climax came off perfectly with some stellar work from the chap on cymbals and potent horns whooping fit to burst.

Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. Photo © Leigh Webber

The subsequent rhythmic ländler, one of Mahler’s more classically structured movements, had a terrific swing to it, with muted brass and woodwind cackling away and a powerful sense of hair being let down. The deliciously tipsy treatment of the second subject was a joy. The famous Frère Jacques mock funeral march achieved the perfect pianissimos that the first movement had sometimes lacked, and it was nice to hear Sloane give the contrasting ‘party’ music the Jewish lilt favoured by Bernstein (something that seems to have fallen out of favour these days).

If the march’s reprise and playout felt a little flat by comparison, the finale set off hell for leather with scurrying strings – the violin section were frankly superb all evening – pounding percussion and blazing brass. Sloane drove a real thrill of a ride with well negotiated rubato giving it an extra kick. The music’s first collapse was magnificently handled, even if the quieter sections came over a little less purposeful. Once things picked up again, however it was real ‘bolt upright’ stuff all the way to the finish line, providing a viscerally satisfying conclusion to a most impressive concert.

The 2019 Spoleto Festival will run from May 24 – June 9. Programming will be announced in January 2019