From the beginning, the Spoleto Festival USA’s orchestral concerts have been its weakest features. Whether given by visiting orchestras in the early days – the New York Philharmonic or the Los Angeles Philharmonic – or by the enthusiastic young musicians of the Festival Orchestra, the programming was often pretty much the same as any decent regional or better orchestra would present on a regular series or – worse – nearly “pops.” In either event, the offerings were not really of “festival” quality compared to the opera and chamber music series. A heartening aspect of the leadership of new Festival Music Director Emmanuel Villaume has been his expansion of orchestral concerts and the selection of higher quality works.

Despite its dilapidated appearance, Charleston’s Memminger Auditorium is one of the finest facilities in which to hear a large orchestra in concert. There’s a palpable physical quality to the experience that I have never experienced in the three state region (Virginia, NC, and SC). Hurricane Hugo water damage took out all the plaster work, leaving a large bare stage (once used for local basketball games), open girders that expose the wooden roof (which may actually help focus the sound), and circa 1950s uncomfortable school auditorium seating. The audience area is only slightly larger than the stage.

This was the ideal setting for the May 28 performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A Minor (“Tragic”), a work seldom performed in the region. Before the concert, Villaume gave some background about the work’s totally grim tone compared to the composer’s more optimistic earlier works. He made much of a specially constructed great hammer that was to be used to strike the hammer blows of “Fate.” In the original score there were three blows but Mahler superstitiously removed the last, fearing to tempt fate! Villaume clearly said that he planned to restore the third blow, but I heard only two. Perhaps the “hammer” weakened too much to do the last blow. Otherwise I have seldom heard or seen an orchestra play with more heart and commitment. All the brass were splendid – especially the large horn section, whether in ensemble or solo. With at least 100 musicians on stage, there were enough strings to give proper balance to orchestra. The eager players were able instantly to adjust to the rapid rhythmic and tempo changes. Such a selection and such playing is at the heart of what a “festival” experience is all about – lifted above the ordinary routine.

On paper the regular Festival Concert looked like it ought to be an equal event, with Mozart’s rarely-heard Concerto No. 10 in E-flat, K.365, for two pianos, coupled with Ravel’s “complete” Daphnis et Chloé. Played in the larger venue, Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, the June 1 performance featured pianists Louis Lortie and Andrew von Oeyen as the impeccable stylists. Conductor Villaume used a rather full string compliment but they were perfectly balanced. Recovering from a broken leg, Lortie entered on crutches but his playing was of seamless elegance and beautifully phrased. The two combined their ensemble as if they were partners with long experience.

In 1997, the North Carolina Symphony presented a full version of Maurice Ravel’s ballet music for Daphnis et Chloé, guest conducted by Laurent Petitgirard, using a large onstage chorus. At the time the guest conductor, also a composer who shared the same publisher as Ravel, explained that full performances were very rare even in Paris. I had expected that the Spoleto Festival would use the same full version but instead they used an all orchestral version that Serge Diaghilev forced the composer to arrange that used orchestral doubling to replace the unique sound of the wordless chorus. I think this affected the “Nocturne” most. Otherwise the performance was vital with Villaume securing a truly French sound from the avid players. Rhythms were lively and well sprung. For those interested, an overhead screen listed the parts of the ballet as they were played.

Spoleto Festival’s Intermezzo series are wide ranging in character; some feature chamber orchestras while others present performers from the operas or orchestral concerts in solo recitals. All the 5:00 p.m. concerts take place in Grace Episcopal Church, which is decent acoustically. The general admission seating rewards those who queue up an hour early.

With all the glowing advance reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations, the line formed very early for the June 3 Intermezzo #4, which was soprano Lyubov Petrova’s recital. Her very able accompanist was Mikhail Hallak, whose beautifully balanced and warm tone combined with tight ensemble with Petrova were models to be emulated. Before the soloist joined him, he gave some background and insights for the selections. He has been a Resident Artist with the Virginia Opera and will join The Santa Fe Opera this summer for La belle Hélène and Intermezzo .

Five of the six songs of the Brentano Lieder, Op. 68, by Richard Strauss that had at least a suggestion of night and love as themes were the only non-Russian portion of Petrova’s program. Her diction and pronunciation were excellent. Her voice has a huge dynamic range and is perfectly supported throughout its considerable span . Her pianissimos took one’s breath away while her loudest notes were perfectly pitched and even.

Most of the rest of the program consisted of rarely-heard treats from the Russian repertory. She opened with Rachmaninov’s chestnut, “Vocalise,” Op. 34, No. 14, which was added to the revised printed program. Besides providing her with a good warm up, it allowed for appreciation of her exquisite control of vocal color as well as her ability to hold a smooth even line. Four songs by Rimsky-Korsakov – about nymphs, skylarks, nightingales, roses and the break up of a cloud bank – were achingly beautiful. Petrova made full use of her dramatic voice in the remaining six songs, two each by Tchaikovsky, Nicolai Medtner and Rachmaninov. Her sense of rhythm and pitch were rock solid and she produced some incredibly shimmering tones. After a true prolonged standing ovation, the packed church was treated to the poignant “Never Sing To Me Again” by Rachmaninov.

I heard soprano Dawn Upshaw’s professional debut in a sparkling Spoleto USA Ariadne auf Naxos, and three times I heard Renée Fleming in Charleston early in her career, in Rameau’s Platée and twice as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro. Petrova made a far stronger first impression than either of those fine artists did!