The Eastern Shore and southern Delaware’s only professional symphony orchestra opened its 2020-21 season Thursday night at the acoustically sublime Easton Church of God sanctuary in front of a live audience.
For that reason alone, it was an evening to celebrate. But the orchestra, led by maestro Julien Benichou and featuring violin soloist Kurt Nikkanen, gave us further cause to say hooray by delivering a splendid if slightly understated concert of classical masterpieces.
But more on the music later. First, in full disclosure, you are reading this review by a critic who was part of a larger at-home audience enjoying the concert streaming on TV or computer screens. As retirees, my wife and I are among millions of others who fall into the category of mature Americans who, while in good health, have what is euphemistically called “underlying conditions.”
Happily, the streaming of this concert—you can still see it through Oct. 1—came as close to being there as any I’ve seen in these pandemic times. Visually speaking, the camera work in certain respects offered at-home viewers a better seat than those attending in person. You can’t just get up and wander about a concert hall for an onstage closeup or climb to the balcony for an overhead glimpse. Nor can you see four angles at once as you can on a split-screen.
The live performance was only possible by limiting the number of MSO subscribers who could buy tickets and cooperated by wearing masks and scattering themselves for safe social distancing. The players were also masked–you can buy your own symphony orchestra mask, by the way–and they were also socially distanced, which mandated a smaller ensemble than usual. The 15 musicians, plus conductor Benichou, were spread out at least six feet apart, often more. Those conditions also dictated the type of program that could be performed live.
Which at last brings us, patient reader, to the music. Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D, Opus 61, is cause for celebration both in the performance and observation of Ludwig van’s 250th birthday this year. Because woodwind and brass instruments require much greater distancing—12 feet or more (no one can blow into them wearing a mask)—the violin soloist is accompanied by other strings in this arrangement. In a post-conference Q&A, Benichou conceded, “Some of the drama is missing without the brass, woodwinds, and tympani.”
Still, the genius behind this concerto is, in some ways, enhanced by a more modest presentation. There was no chance of diminishing the vigor of Nikkanen’s solo parts, expressing mixed lyrical emotions–from a tearful adagio of regrets to a vibrant rondo of cheerful recovery, ending in a joyfully repetitive theme. If you’re watching at home, you may want to dance–not recommended in a concert setting. Acknowledging the applause, Nikkanen took a bow, then said, “I’m smiling under the mask.”
Wrapped on either side of Beethoven were two pieces by Grieg—Erotik (Poeme Erotique) Opus 43, No. 5, and the Holberg Suite, Opus 40. The first piece, very short, serves as an appetizer to Beethoven’s 45-minute concerto. Written for piano, this string orchestra transcription brings to mind, as played here, feelings adrift in a dream of romantic remembrance.
Grieg’s suite, composed as a tribute to Danish author Ludvig Holberg, pays homage to the music of the early 18th century, evoking classical folk dances. With soloist Nikkanen slipping into the first violin concertmaster chair, the performance juxtaposes a storm-tossed athleticism—think downhill skiing—with a summer breeze after awakening from the seemingly perpetual Nordic winter of darkness.
We can hardly wait for the current darkness to lift.
The orchestra is getting the hang of performing several feet apart as required for now. In the post-concert Q&A, MSO violinist Celaya Kirchner explained the difficulty experienced in the recent makeup concert to last season’s postponed finale. “You can’t really hear the players in the rest of your section. It’s fun but scary.”
Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra’s live season-opening concert at the Easton Church of God Thursday evening, Sept. 24, streaming simultaneously on YouTube and midatlanticsymphony.org, which can be viewed free through Oct. 1.
Steve Parks is a retired arts critic and editor now living in Easton.