REVIEW:  At 90, Spartanburg Philharmonic Ushers in New Maestro, New Era, New Name

Maestro Stefan Sanders


Stefan Sanders is officially a Hub City resident. A Sparkle City denizen. Spartanburg’s newest prominent citizen. And as music director for the Spartanburg Philharmonic, Sanders is already cementing his reputation as a local treasure.

Sanders conducted his first official concert Saturday, Sept. 29 in an engaging program of 20th Century popular classics by Bernstein, Gershwin and Ravel for the organization’s 90th Year Celebration. And the result was no less than stellar. Also joining the Philharmonic family was the maestro’s wife, harpist Kela Walton, and his mother in the audience who travelled all the way from Austin, Texas for his debut.

In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, the symphony orchestra performed  a delightful rendition of the composer’s ground-breaking and successful stand-alone “Overture” from ”Candide,” which features an eclectic arrangement of the operetta’s arias and themes at breakneck speeds such as “Oh Happy We” and “Glitter and Be Gay.” I had just seen the Greenville Symphony Orchestra play this piece in its all-Bernstein tribute one week prior and Spartanburg’s performance was just as grand.

In the first of two George Gershwin pieces, an animated Sanders and the orchestra dazzled in the whimsical tone poem to the City of Lights, “An American in Paris.” From the dynamic sounds of taxi horns along a leisurely stroll down the Champs-Elysées, to the frenzied rhythmic pacing of urban wonderment from an American expatriate perspective, the orchestra exuded a French sensibility with aplomb..

And the “homesickness blues” section was just glorious with a playful jazz trumpet solo, John Holloway on the tuba and, even a brief solo by concertmaster Joanna Mulfinger, before launching back into the jazzy full-force fluidity of the upbeat final movement.

And speaking of France, while not as well-known to the Twichell Auditorium audience as his masterpiece “Bolero” (more on that later), Maurice Ravel’s  “La valse,” a choreographic poem for orchestra  closed out the first half of the program.

Grounded by the rumbling from the cellos and basses, “La valse” is waltz-driven (a nod to Johann Strauss) and is extravagant, unsettling and even erratic at times. The primary waltz theme is reimagined and reinterpreted with other variations, lead often by the sanguine violins, but shared and repeated in wildly contrasting melodies by the woodwind and heavy brass to a marvelous conclusion.

For Gershwin’s magnum opus “Rhapsody in Blue,” the orchestra was joined by the sensational guest artist Anton Nel on piano. This piece was pure ecstasy for the Twichell audience with its infectious bluesy jazz riff, and the showmanship and technique of this master of the ivories.

Precise, commanding, and passionate with emotional inflection and an astute symbiotic relationship with his instrument, Nel is an internationally-acclaimed musician originally from South Africa.

And the orchestra was simply divine, countering his free-style jazz solos with massive amounts of flourish, both sweepingly beautiful and majestic.

And concluding the evening’s enthralling program was Ravel’s “Bolero,” which was probably my favorite. Inspired by the Spanish dance, the work is so simplistic in its construction that it almost defies logic. With Matt McDaniel front and center on the snare drum, the melody is launched by the flute, then clarinet, then bassoon, and so on until, one by one, the entire group of musicians crescendos and rejoices in the breathtaking magical journey. Bravo Maestro and Spartanburg Philharmonic!

The next concert will be “Heroes and Villains: Music from Hollywood Films” on November 10 at Twichell Auditorium. Meanwhile, the Espresso Series kicks off October 26 at Chapman Cultural Center with an encore viewing of the silent horror film classic “Nosferatu” with a live score of music by Brahms and Composer-in-Residence Peter B. Kay and conducted by Maestro Sanders.

For tickets and more information, visit

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