Now it can be said that the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra’s first annual Elizabeth Loker Concerto Competition was not only a success, it was a triumph.
The winning piece performed by University of Maryland music graduate student Joseph McNure, Paul Creston’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone, was astounding even when played with just piano accompaniment during January’s finals. Thursday night at the acoustically warm Easton Church of God, with the full orchestra at the baton command of Julien Benichou, the performance ranged from sublime to spectacular and back again in a three-movement sonic thrill ride. More on this concerto later.
McNure had a tough opening act to follow as Jamie Anderes, a home-schooled 11th-grader now in her fifth year as a Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra flutist, also directed by Benichou, performed as soloist on Cecile Chaminade’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, regarded as one of the most challenging pieces for her instrument. (Jamie is also a Junior Olympic gymnast and an artist who placed in the 2019 Congressional Art Competition. Talk about a young Renaissance woman.) The concerto opens with pastoral serenity beautifully rendered by the flutist, preceding a bold orchestral statement. She concludes with songbird piercings of a soaring string finish punctuated by a smooth-landing grace note.
Sandwiched between the two soloists was Rameau’s 18th-century Suite des Danses (from “Platee”). Danses is part of a comic opera now gathering dust. But this lively dialogue between upper and lower stringed instruments surrounding a syncopated dance interlude makes for a robust Baroque relic.
Considering the fireworks of the first half, post-intermission was a comparative letdown, though an informative one. In 1908, American composer Charles Ives endeavored to move the music world from European classical to atonal modernist all at once. “The Unanswered Question” asks whether we exist or not. It’s a question posed by Descartes, the philosopher who answered, “I think, therefore I am.” The near somnambulant strings of Ives’ piece stubbornly refuse to answer, which agitates the trumpet (Luis Engelke, hidden from view offstage), while reed instrumentalists add to the insurrection from the mezzanine. Clever, yes. But, as Benichou pointed out, Ives made his living selling insurance.
In introducing Mozart’s Symphony 33, Benichou noted that a survey of his musicians revealed only one who’d played it before. He still ranked it among Mozart’s better late symphonies. Although the orchestra played it vigorously when possible—the Andante is a dirge—it was only in the final movement that 33 came together with sharp interposes between strings and the oboe, bassoon and horn contingent. Mozart, ever in search of commercial success, failed to find one here. Yet it was among the few symphonies published before his death at 35.
Back to the sax concerto: Creston wrote all sorts of music, including for movies and TV. His alto-sax standard reflects some of those influences. McNure seemed to both absorb and reflect such nuances in his debut performance. The first movement, “Energetic,” is aptly titled, as are the other two. McNure’s playing brought to mind a smoky basement nightclub, far from the ecclesiastical setting. I could picture him as a jazz player in a 1950s black-and-white flick ending in a cops-and-gangster car chase set to NcNure’s lightning-fingered pace. An ominous string-and-timpani interlude leads to a sax introduction for the next “Meditative” movement with notes held longer than you thought possible, then rising to a burst of reflective self-awareness. Athletic chops are required for the “Rhythmic” finale—a relentless display of serial sax techniques with the orchestra obliging as second-fiddle.
A well-earned standing ovation ensued.
To promote the concerts, the MSO and Dunes Manor Hotel in Ocean City offer a weekend “cultural music package”—oceanfront accommodations and tickets for two at either ocean venue for $150. Weekend forecast: Partly sunny to sunny, highs in the 50s.
Elizabeth Loker, for whom the Concerto Competition is named, was a retired Washington Post executive
who moved to Talbot County and fell in love with the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, joined its board of directors and became a benefactor. In 2015, she died of cancer at her Royal Oak home. She was 67. The late friend-of-the-arts Pete Howell was also remembered on this occasion by board president Jeffrey Parker.
MSO Concerto Competition Concerts
Saturday, March 7 at 3 p.m.: Church of Christ, 55 West Ave., Ocean View, Delaware Sunday, March 8 at 3 p.m.: Community Church, Route 589 and Racetrack Road, Ocean Pines, Maryland Concert Only Tickets: $45/each Cultural Music Package: $150/for two, includes room at Dunes Hotel, Ocean City Or call: 888-846-8600.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts writer, editor, and critic now living in Easton.
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