The finale of the 24th season of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra began inauspiciously when board president Jeffrey Parker’s handheld microphone failed as he tried to make his opening remarks in the 1,000-plus seat Easton High School auditorium. Before the mic’s batteries gave out, Parker informed the audience of several hundred that concertmaster William Wang was on his way from Chesapeake College where the concert was originally scheduled.
After music director Julien Benichou took his opening bow, he led the orchestra in a sunny performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s nine-minute Overture to Euryanthe. Leaving the stage, Benichou returned with the guest soloist for the evening and fresh microphone batteries. He introduced YaoGuang Zhai, the gifted principal clarinetist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra who was about to perform in the daunting Concerto in A for Clarinet and Orchestra, which the maestro described as “a shining light at the end of Mozart’s career.” Completed in October 1791, it was to be his last orchestral work as Mozart died two months later in Vienna.
The clarinet was a new instrument at the time and, in 230 years since its first performance, the challenges of the piece are such that it’s often used in auditions for clarinetists seeking, for instance, a distinguished position like the one Yao now holds after being appointed by maestro Marin Alsop. In orchestral works, seldom are the demands of a soloist, other than a pianist, as extensive as that presented by the Mozart concerto. There is barely any conflict between orchestra and the clarinetist as each carries the bright and festive melody, for the most part, independently. Brief orchestral interludes led by the violins gave Yao a few small measures in which to catch his breath after his lyrical expositions. The solo expression throughout is almost vocalese as Yao makes the instrument sing colorfully up and down the reed palette.
The concerto, while parts of it have been featured in such movies as “The King’s Speech,” 2011 best picture Oscar winner, does not often appear in symphony subscription seasons – perhaps, in part, because it’s such a difficult solo role to fill. MSO subscribers are, indeed, fortunate to be rewarded by this stellar performance.
Not to be overlooked in its brevity, the Weber overture of a mostly forgotten Viennese opera celebrated what this season has been about for the Delmarva Peninsula’s only fully professional symphony orchestra. Forty-two musicians, including associate concertmaster Melanie Kuperstein in the first chair – 43 after Wang arrived in time for the Mozart concerto – filled the stage physically as well as filling the auditorium with resonance of the overture’s festive leitmotifs that were an orchestral novelty before being popularized by Wagner.
In the previous COVID-restricted season, the Mid-Atlantic Symphony limited its repertoire to strings only. Following intermission, every section of the orchestra had its moments to shine in Brahms’ three-quarter hour Symphony No. 2. A deceptively quiet opening led by the lower strings is quickly overtaken by horns before the phrasing is repeated by violins, trombones and timpani. The second part of this allegro features woodwinds in a folk music diversion before a second melodious theme is introduced by the cellos. A nostalgic fugue led by French horns and a repeat of the woodwind folk segment brought the long first movement to a satisfying conclusion.
The slower second movement offers a showcase of familiar classical techniques with starring roles, again, for French horns and trombones, paired with the bassoons – all confidently rendered in assertive and intense harmony. The third movement stands in sharp contrast with its lighter minuet form, giving receptive ears a rest with delightful dance melodies that set the stage for the dramatic final movement’s frenzied jailbreak in energy and volume after a tentative opening. Led by an especially demonstrative Benichou, the orchestra galloped to a stirring finish of a glorious symphonic season of COVID musical recovery.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.
“A Gloriously Radiant Finale”
Final concert series of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony’s 24th season Friday, April 22, at Easton High School. Performances also 7 p.m. Saturday, April 23, Cape Henlopen High School, Lewes, Delaware, and Sunday, April 24, Ocean City Performing Arts Center; midatlanticsymphony.org (Masks are not required, but proof of COVID vaccination is required in order to attend.)