The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra is playing live on stage again after COVID-canceling all dozen of its late-season and summer concerts. Saturday night’s concert at the Strathmore Music Center was not exactly a gala occasion, though it was certainly worth celebrating.
No live audience was allowed–this critic included–in the nearly 2,000-seat North Bethesda concert hall. But it was an elegant occasion nevertheless, recorded applause and whistling, notwithstanding.
Opening night of the 2020-21 season was worth every dollar to see it streaming live at home. The first in the symphony’s “Masterworks” series was highlighted both by Vaughan Williams’ ”Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” and Piazolla’s “The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires,” featuring violin soloist Chee-Yun. But if you missed it, you have until June 2021 to catch up. While other orchestras, the Eastern Shore’s Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra among them, have chosen to re-engage with a combination of a sharply limited subscriber audience along with free streaming access, the Annapolis Symphony wants to court you as a virtual subscriber.
More on that later. Now back to the music.
The theme of this season’s “Masterworks” series, “Harmony in Nature,” is overtly expressed in “Cuatro Estaciones Portenas (The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires).” But first up in the program was the intensely challenging Vaughan Williams “Fantasia.” Guided by music director Jose-Luis Novo, the ASO met the challenge decisively. This remarkable piece that premiered in 1910 in the name of Tallis (1505-1585), composer of its recurring melody, is one of many by Vaughan Williams inspired by the music of the English Renaissance. He scripted “Fantasia” to be played as a full string orchestra in three parts: a string quartet in the middle with one player from each section aligned in the back, apart from the rest of the orchestra in front. He imagined the configuration as an organ without pipes. Each part echoes the other in a contemplatively blended melody that weaves a spell, as in a fantasy. And so it was at the Strathmore.
There would be no letdown from this initial high as Yumi Hogan introduced–virtually, of course–violin soloist Chee-Yun, also from the Maryland First Lady’s native South Korea. The international virtuoso vigorously anchored each of the “Four Seasons,” starting with autumn because it is spring in the Southern Hemisphere. At the same time, Vivaldi, a Venetian, opened his “Four Seasons” with spring as we know it north of the Equator. This quartet of tango-tinged seasonal impressions opens with a foot-stomping violin cadence heralding a reawakening in blossoms and hatchings. Chee-Yun leads a more languorous pace in winter, the Argentine “summer,” before flirting in a sultry invitation to bask in her glow. You can hear the leaves falling off the end of her staccato bow in spring, followed by a richly accompanied windswept swirl. Summer (winter, remember?) gets our attention with a blizzard of furious strokes on taut bows.
In what seems like minutes (it was), the year passes, and so does a life in George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings.” In 1936, after becoming the first African-American to graduate from Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, Walker composed this elegy for his grandmother, inspired by classmate Samuel Barber’s “Allegro for Strings.” The mournful full-orchestra opening settles into a harmonious acceptance, then dramatically shifts to a life story we have yet to read.
Wrapping up this true collection of masterpieces is Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro,” introduced with long, drawn-out notes that seem to linger on a few select strings almost beyond hearing before swelling romantically in an all-strings-on-deck crescendo.
Since there’s no guarantee that live audiences will be allowed in large numbers at indoor concerts anytime soon, the Symphony+ virtual series offers a full-season “ticket” for $99, including five “Masterworks,” a holiday concert, and a few extras. No separate fee for anyone in your home. Cautionary note to ASO: It may be a tougher sell for individual in-person tickets once “going viral” doesn’t carry a deadly double meaning anymore.
Annapolis Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert, Saturday, Sept. 26, Strathmore Music Center, North Bethesda. Virtual access only by live stream, available now through June 2021 at annapolissymphony.org
Steve Parks is a retired arts critic and editor now living in Easton.