The Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra was one of the very few anywhere to complete an entire season of live performances in 2020-21, albeit with strings only. But the current season opener, Thursday night at Easton High School, marked the first time in 18 months that this fine ensemble of professional musicians had an opportunity to play as a full orchestra. They did not disappoint.
The evening also made news as Jeffrey Parker, president of the board of directors, announced that the MSO—the Delmarva Peninsula’s only professional symphony orchestra, has signed a three-year union contract with its talented cast of musicians. “This gives us stability,” Parker said in a brief interview during intermission. “Our musicians know that they’ll have work, not just now but next spring and two seasons after that.”
The opening night concert began with what felt like warm-up exercises. The first piece: Modest Mussorgsky’s Overture to Khovanshchina (The Khovantsky Affair), a prelude to the opera of the same title, was treated by the music director Julien Benicho like a music lesson as he outlined contours of the classical shorts. Running barely five minutes, the overture opens with a tranquil yet intense melody followed by several variations that hint at succeeding stanzas to be sung by the actors. As with most overtures, it ends abruptly, leaving you wishing for more.
The lesson continued with Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, introduced with a joke repeated by Benichou. “When Gershwin asked if he could study with Ravel,” the French composer asked the American how much money he’d earned lately. (The word “tombeau” denotes a memorial piece, a tomb, while Couperin was a 17th-18th musical family.) The Baroque suite in four movements runs about 20 minutes—perhaps another reason the maestro stretched the first half of the program. Ravel dedicated his tombeau to friends killed in World War I. Popular as a selection for summer outdoor concerts, it’s considered easy classical listening. Far from a requiem, it opens with a light call and response led by reeds answered by strings. Subsequent movements bring to mind the Alfred Hitchcock theme IF his TV series were a comedy, leading into darker tones suggesting melancholy and ending with a rousing, celebratory finish.
But it was Beethoven’s epic Eroica that fulfilled the theme of the season opener, “A Heroic Return,” which “pays tribute to all the unsung heroes of the period we have just gone through,” Benichou said, “while the second movement, the Funeral March, pays homage to the victims of COVID-19.” (MSO management paid heed to COVID medical recommendations by requiring all those attending to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask—musicians included.)
Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which his 3rd (Eroica) preceded by a few years, includes a four-note opening coda, not unlike that which became the most famous notes in the classical repertoire. The response, by a violin section led by concertmaster Regi Papa, is so vigorous that one could work up a sweat playing or conducting its pell-mell pace. While the concert’s first half displayed the orchestra’s musical dexterity, Eroica showed off its muscularity. Bombastic with room for a woodwind break or two, the glorious sound and fury emanating throughout the spacious auditorium declared indisputably that full orchestral music is back, At least in Easton and the Delmarva Peninsula.
Far more somber, the second movement (the Funeral March) opens with strong cello and bass undertones along with mournful woodwinds and horns rising to the solemn occasion, amplified by a timpani heartbeat; or is it distant artillery? In any case, it’s a requiem for a fallen warrior. Beethoven had Napoleon in mind, though he was at the peak of his powers when Eroica was created. Movement 3 broke classical convention of Beethoven’s time by opening with cellos in the lead rather than violins, launching an explosive burst. A bassoon solo calls myriad instrumental parts together for a symphonic conversation, including a spirited scherzo—comedy in musical language—in stark contrast to the preceding dirge.
The final movement begins with a string-plucking tip-toe beat repeated at many times that volume by resounding strings to a crisp march-like cadence echoing earlier movements.
The performance richly deserved the standing ovation by the modest audience, its numbers still limited, perhaps, by COVID and its surging Delta variant. To hear classical music live again, by the Shore’s own professional orchestra, get vaccinated if you are not already, and encourage others to do the same. And we’ll all become conquerors together.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.
MID-ATLANTIC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: “A HEROIC RETURN”
Remaining concerts: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, Cape Henlopen High School, Lewes, DE; 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 26, Performing Arts Center, Ocean City
Tickets: $45, 888-846-8600, midatlanticsymphony.org All those attending must show proof of vaccination to be admitted.