It’s unusual to make a full-disclosure admission at the start of a review. But special circumstances appear to call for it on this occasion. I did not attend the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra’s concert live last Thursday night at the Easton Church of God because of a conflicting assignment: covering Susan Werner’s concert at the grand opening of the Avalon Foundation’s new Stoltz Pavilion tent. I spent Friday writing that story as well as another Talbot Spy assignment. Therefore, I didn’t see the livestream of the MSO concert until Saturday morning. One more disclosure: My attention was diverted during the second of three movements of Bartok’s Divertimento by a news flash many Americans had been awaiting. Something about a president-elect.
My attention momentarily diverted from the Divertimento, I recorded the news bulletin, resumed viewing the concert and, with a discipline I strained to maintain, retreated to my home office to write this review.
If that turns out to be the most dramatic part of my review, don’t blame the maestro or the musicians. Once again, the Eastern Shore’s only professional symphony orchestra has soldiered on to bring live classical music to a shrinking in-person, pandemic-wary audience, which may, in the end, broaden the MSO’s outreach through live-concert streaming. There are necessary restraints, however. Because wind and brass instruments require far greater distance than strings for both audience and musicians’ safety, the Mid-Atlantic, led by music director Julien Benichou, is performing as a string orchestra with selections enlisting those instruments alone. Benichou has proven adept at presenting pieces that are rare on the symphonic stage, in this case, including Anton Arensky’s homage to Tchaikovsky with his variations on a theme by his musical hero. Better known as a teacher, Arensky counted among his students Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin. He might have enjoyed greater success as a composer had he not died at age 45 of tuberculosis.
As performed Thursday night, Arensky’s variations opened with a solidly romantic theme played by all the orchestra strings. Later themes were alternately quicker paced with staccato punctuations and more contemplative with an almost sleepy finish that became obvious only when the maestro motioned for his musicians to take a bow. Overall, Arensky’s homage captured some of Tchaikovsky’s romanticism without his dramatic flourishes.
A pair of Vivaldi concertos–one written for lute and another for two mandolins–are now widely performed on guitar, which had not been invented in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The twinned pieces were impeccably interpreted, first by Thomas Viloteau on French guitar, and then paired with his wife Alexandra on classical guitar, replacing two mandolin players. Thomas Viloteau’s solo on the contemplative opening of Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto’s second movement, with light string accompaniment, soothingly carries the familiar melody that inspired such rock-star composers as Mozart and continues to inspire modern rock and pop stars. Joined by Alexandra on the concerto re-arranged for two guitars, she and Thomas harmonize as a couple in the celebratory opening that brings to mind a wedding-party masterpiece processional.
The Bartok Divertimento skips a century from Vivaldi’s time to the advent of modern dissonance in the classical realm. There are ominous overtones to this last piece he wrote in Europe, 1939-40, as political circumstances motivated Bartok to depart for the United States. The foreboding opening suggests danger ahead with complications lurking at every musical turn. Concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen led his fellow violinists and the rest of the orchestra in a quickening string heartbeat and a staccato uptick in plucking to an abrupt finish.
Not as exhilarating as the news that had just flashed. But that was likely due to my bad timing. You can choose your own in livestream land, now through Thursday, Nov. 12.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.
MID-ATLANTIC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
String orchestra concert of Arensky, Vivaldi and Bartok featuring guitar soloists Alexandra and Thomas Viloteau; Thursday, Nov. 5 at Easton Church of God, simulcast through Nov. 12, suggested donation of $15, midatlanticsymphony.org