The Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra opened its 2023-24 season with something old and something entirely new, led by its Grammy-winning music director, Michael Repper.
The first selection of Thursday night’s program signals that the new season will feature, along with classical masterpieces by long-dead composers, music by our contemporaries, and works by women and men of color, living or dead. First up was Jessie Montgomery, an African-American woman born in New York City in 1981, which makes her at least 23 years shy of Medicare eligibility. Her “New York Strum” debuted in 2006 as a string quartet piece and, over the next six years, evolved into a full orchestral “voice,” as Montgomery calls it, giving “Strum” a more expansive sound.
Montgomery was among the black female composers whose works comprised the recording that won the New York Youth Orchestra and Repper their 2022 Grammy. In introducing the piece, Repper stated what would become apparent – why it was called “Strum.” The first notes and a great many that followed were plucked on strings, starting with first cellist Katie McCarthy as violin and viola pizzicato joined in to create a percussive throughline. A thoroughly modern piece emerged, without atonal digressions, to mimic a NYC vibe, much as Gershwin did for another city in “American in Paris” nearly a century ago (1928). Bouncy changes of pace introduced with gliding bows led to a rapid-fire coda featuring a sonorous bass undertone by Chris Chlumsky and T. Alan Stewart.
Moving back a couple of centuries, Tchaikovsky created some of the most recognizable and romantic melodies in all of classical music. Some of his most beloved pieces were ballets – “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.” But most of his work was written for full symphony orchestration. “Serenade for Strings,” second on the opening night program, is a Tchaikovsky rarity – strings-only. While it is not a greatest-hits medley for strings, its melodies are so accessible and memorable – ranging from melancholy to a folk romp – they may leave you humming them at intermission, even if you’re unfamiliar with the entire “Serenade.”
The highly romantic sonata opening features dramatic flourishes typical of Tchaikovsky that blend seamlessly into the busy second movement with violins in charge of the balletic cadence challenged by cello and bass counterpoint. The third movement sets a lighter dance mood with a flowing waltz refrain heard in other contexts, such as cinematic soundtracks. The finale begins with what could be a requiem before settling into a pastoral disposition that morphs into a reawakening embroidered with spirited repeats of earlier themes.The finale, post-intermission, takes us back still one more century to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. For all its ingenuity, his Fourth is dwarfed in significance and widespread recognition by the bookends of his Third (“Eroica”), which revolutionized classical music of the 18th Century, and his Fifth, featuring the most famous phrase in musical history (“da-da-da DUM”). The Fourth wanders at times, seemingly aimlessly, to an uplifting allegro. In context, the celebratory finish seems ironic in that Beethoven is said to have endured serial rejections by women he desired and was worried, to the point of suicidal thoughts, about the onset of deafness. Without the light-hearted Fourth, maybe there would be no Fifth.
The ominous opening, with soft strings and echoing brass and reeds, breaks into a gallop and the declarative bombast we expect of a Beethoven symphony, executed here with conviction. The lighter second movement gives us and the musicians a breather with melodic changes in tempo and temperament. The third movement introduces one of the more relatable passages dominated by the higher strings led by concertmaster Kimberly McCollum and first violist Yuri Tomenko. The finale is a high-energy race to a happy ending that brought the appreciative opening night audience to its feet.
Which brings me back to the actual first notes of the concert, which are not listed on the program: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” played, of course, with lyrics unsung, had me keeping pace up to the moment where at any sporting event, I shout out “O” at the “O say can you see” line. Professional decorum persuaded me to reduce my shout to a whisper. But in acknowledgment of my urge and perhaps that of others, Repper pointed out that the national anthem had just been played (and sung) at Camden Yards in Baltimore about an hour earlier as the Orioles went on to clinch the American League East division title on their way, hopefully, to the first World Series ever at Oriole Park since its debut in 1992. Go O’s! And the MSO, too.
Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra Season Opener
Thursday night at Church of God in Easton. Also, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, Cape Henlopen High School, Lewes, Delaware, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, Community Church, Ocean Pines
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic (and Oriole fan) now living in Easton.