Editor's note: Steven Branyon, a longtime musician in the Lowcountry, provided this review at the request of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.
What a delight it was to hear Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra's "A Serenade of Strings" on Jan. 30 at the First Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head Island.
This concert was a well-planned marriage between all parties involved, including the music itself, the orchestra, the soloists (both Edisher Savitski and Paul Lott), and, last but not least, the conductor (Bohuslav Rattay), who brought it all together so beautifully.
The concert opened with the "Capriol Suite," by Peter Warlock. I was glad to hear this set of dances by a composer whom I only knew through some of his church music. I really liked these charming movements, mostly because they were short, each lasting only two to three minutes. It was like enjoying a small meal of six delicious appetizers, giving us just a sample of delight and then moving on to the next. You could tell the melodies and harmonies were from an earlier era, but with little color tones added here and there by the composer, putting his personal stamp on them.
The conductor was very much at ease as he conducted the furiously fast tempo at the beginning of the first movement, the "Basse-Danse," and then he just let the orchestra play on their own without much help for many measures. The second movement of the set, "Pavane," had such a beautiful melody that I am tempted to lift it out for an organ improvisation on a Sunday morning. The third movement, "Tordion," made good use of the strings playing pizzicato in really high registers. The fifth movement, "Pieds-en-l'air," made use of notes suspended and resolved in unusual ways, and the last movement, "Mattachins," was filled with forceful energy as accents were placed or misplaced, holding the listener's attention to the very end.
Delightful as this was, it was just a warm up of what was to come.
Next we heard the Shostakovich "Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op. 35." Even if you are one who has never gravitated toward Shostakovich, you would have been moved by this performance. Both conductor and pianist, who are native to the composer's part of the world, have a deep understanding of Shostakovich and were very successful in drawing the audience into this unusual and complicated music, even though they had never previously performed together. Their combined knowledge and sensitivity to Shostakovich's work was confirmed during their responses to questions posed to them after the concert.
Next we heard Barber's "Adagio for Strings." It was great to hear a familiar work. Again, "Adagio" is a work listeners never seem to get weary of. I heard some sonorities and sounds during this performance that I could not readily identify, but the conductor used a different seating arrangement for the orchestra, and this could have influenced my hearing of this work.
It was beautiful and moving nonetheless.
The program concluded with the "Serenade for Strings, Op. 6," by a rather unknown composer, Joseph Suk (l874-1935). My impression was that it was a largely romantic work with many lush harmonies and expressive endings. The only thing that hinted to a post-romantic style were the foreign keys that the music occasionally made its way to before returning home. The dialog between soloists, sometimes in duo, was a delightful interplay between various instruments and held my attention completely. In another movement, the deep tones in the low strings were brought out in a way that I was not expecting, but this unusual sonority was captivating. The conductor later revealed that this was the most difficult work on the program. I was not expecting him to say this, because the serenade is so pleasing and yet predictable to the ears.
It just goes to show you, things are not always as we perceive them to be, and we all have much to learn and much to gain.
Steven Branyon is a native of York and a graduate of North Greenville University, Winthrop University and Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. He is organist/choirmaster at All Saints Episcopal Church on Hilton Head.