REVIEW:  Spartanburg Philharmonic Orchestra Debuts Maestro-In-Waiting Stefan Sanders

Maestro-In-Waiting Stefan Sanders


Spartanburg Philharmonic Orchestra launched its ProjectMaestro search for a new conductor last night in glorious fashion with the first of three finalists for the podium, Stefan Sanders.

And he excelled eloquently. In tux and tails, Sanders is a literal music conductor, no undiscernible arm movements or bizarre faces. Carrying himself with impeccable posture, he displays irrepressible passion and an acute sense of humor beyond his baton.

His first selection, Mozart’s “Symphony No. 39” sparkled from its opening bars in the Adagio , particularly the delicate point-counterpoint dialogue between strings and brass and woodwind; the pastoral and genteel phrases in the second movement that also briefly echoes Mozart’s earlier work (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”); and the frenetic finger work on the upper strings.

The middle program selection was “Variations on a Rococo Theme,” featuring the incredible internationally renowned cellist and South Carolina native, Claire Bryant. In what has to be the most inspiring and eccentric solos ever written for the cello, Sanders grants Ms. Bryant trust and ample carte blanche in her artistic assault on this  free-style, irreverent and ambitious defiance of narrative. The frenetic fingering to the echelons of the cello’s range right up to her bridge. The piece is unorthodox in its unexpected elasticity that presages both jazz and abstract expressionism. Tchaikovsky poses shades of his traditional folk riffs with richly-textured and heartbreaking weepy melodies.

And Bryant’s mastery of this mind-boggling solo was, frankly, mystifying.

During the Mozart piece, Sanders spun around to the audience and noted that he liked that the Twichell Auditorium audience clapped in between the movements.

Of course, there was no time for applause in the most-anticipated section of the program, and conceivably the most-beloved four notes in the world from Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony”. Even the disco version is outstanding. And Greenville Symphony Orchestra is kicking off its 70th season next weekend with the “Fifth.”

Sanders’ “Fifth” is no wimpy ordeal. Vigorous and powerful, this infamous opening Allegro is crisp, and rages without a hint of subtlety. Signaled by the briefest of pauses between movements, this half-hour masterpiece was most tantalizing at a brisk, winsome pace from the steely haunting in the Andante melodies (any Lars von Triers film comes to mind) to the full-force of the orchestra in the final Allegro’s victorious march that tested the sound barriers at  Twichell.

Sanders, currently a Buffalo, NY resident, has spent the last week meeting the stalwarts of the Spartanburg music community, patrons, sponsors, and even students at McCracken Middle School, and Dorman and Spartanburg High Schools.

He is also the music director of the Fayetteville (NC) Symphony Orchestra, the Resident Conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director of the Round Rock Symphony in Central Texas. A graduate of the Juilliard School, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Interlochen Arts Academy, his early career lead to international acclaim as a trombonist.

Joanna Mulfinger Lebo is Concertmaster of the SPO.

These three candidates were selected from 127 applications and the SPO is inviting Spartanburg to be a part of the search process by voting via their website at, and at the ProjectMaestro concerts.

The other two ProjectMaestro concerts (both with Mozart on the bill) will feature:
Patrick Dupré Quigley, Guest Conductor
Program: Mozart’s “Overture from Le nozze di Figaro”; Gliere’s “Concerto for Coloratura Soprano” featuring esteemed soloist and GRAMMY® Award Nominee Kathryn Mueller; Sibelius’ “Symphony no. 2 in D”
Saturday, November 4 at 7 p.m.
Twichell Auditorium, Converse College in Spartanburg

Scott Seaton, Guest conductor
Program: Rossini’s Overture from Il Signor Bruschino”; Mozart’s “Violin Concerto no. 5, ‘Turkish’ ” featuring Andrew Sords; Tchaikovsky’s :Symphony no. 4 in f minor, op. 36”
Saturday, February 2 at 7 p.m.
Twichell Auditorium, Converse College in Spartanburg

Also, catch “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” Greenville Symphony Orchestra’s 70th concert season opener on September 23 & 24 at the Peace Center in Greenville. The all-Beethoven program features the return of pianist Dmitri Levkovich performing Beethoven’s mighty “Emperor” Piano Concerto, as well as the Overture to “Egmont,” and one of Beethoven’s most popular works ever, his powerful Fifth Symphony.

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