The Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, Delmarva’s professionally accomplished philharmonic, capped its 22nd season with a challenging masterworks program marked by individual distinction and collaborative virtuosity.
It’s hard to imagine a more inspired finale than the textured and rousing performance of Beethoven’s miraculous 9th Symphony, his own symphonic finale, composed in two years beginning in 1822 when he had gone completely deaf. Deploying his genius and mental dexterity to write with a complex aural beauty he could test only with the inner ear of his mind, Beethoven created a masterpiece that is also the first major symphony featuring the human voice—many of them, actually—as a musical instrument.
But first, the audience was treated to a rare, perhaps unprecedented, encore before the scheduled concert. A pre-core, if you will, was graciously gifted by the evening’s piano soloist Michael McHale, after symphony board chair Jeffrey Parker announced that the concert would start a half-hour late due to a Bay Bridge accident that delayed a quarter of the MSO ensemble. McHale played several short pieces, including a Chopin nocturne and Irish traditionals of his own arrangement.
Once the latecomers arrived to applause, music director Julien Benichou abbreviated his usually loquacious opening remarks to lead the orchestra in Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” an emotionally patriotic salute to his native land that has launched an ecumenical array of hymns. Fittingly accompanied by a large choir— two, in fact: the Carter Legacy Singers named for Nathaniel Carter, the late Morgan State University choral director, and the Southern Delaware Chorale—their reverent vocal delivery was muffled at times by the ominous warlike brass and the prayerful swelling of woodwinds and strings.
McHale, an internationally acclaimed piano soloist from Northern Ireland, distinguished himself far beyond his “pre-core” chops by mastering the notoriously difficult keyboard calisthenics of Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G major. A crack of the whip signals the opening drum-and-piano staccato that wanders from the windchime-y delicacy of a blues dream sequence to a sprinting riff in which McHale all but falls off his bench reaching for the end-of-the-keyboard horizon, punctuated by woodwind bird calls borne by a fluttering string breeze led by concertmaster Jose Cueto.
Following intermission, the audience settled in for the 70-minute 9th. The fourth movement alone is as long as many symphonies. But time flies from the profoundly Beethoven opening notes—robustly delivered as if to awaken Beethoven’s inner ear—to the cello-and-bass overture that rallies with the urgency of a racing heartbeat/drumbeat. The second movement’s uptempo march slows down enough to catch its breath before a pell-mell rush to the finish, standing in stark contrast to the third movement’s soothing pastoral respite.
A pause before the defining 4th movement allowed the solo vocalists to take their places in front of the maestro’s podium: authoritative bass baritone Kevin Short, tempestuous tenor Israel Lozano, with piercing duel phrasing by soprano Allysa Packard and alto Jordan Swett. Sung in German, the familiar “Ode to Joy” refrain, especially when joined in by the let-it-rip voices of the double chorale, delivered a spiritual uplift—much needed these days. “Ode” left much of the audience humming with a smile while exiting after issuing their verdict with an extended standing ovation. Yes, bravo.
See you in September, MSO.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist and former feature editor for Newsday. He now lives in Easton.
“Ode to Humankind, To Country and to Joy!”
Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra concert, Friday, April 26, Chesapeake College, Wye Mills
“Finlandia,” Jean Sibelius, with Carter Legacy Singers and Southern Delaware Chorale
Piano Concerto in G major, Maurice Ravel, with piano soloist Michael McHale
Symphony No. 9, Ludwig Van Beethoven, with soprano Allysa Packard, alto Jordan Swett, tenor Israel Lozano, bass baritone Kevin Short, Carter Legacy Singers, Southern Delaware Chorale
Final performance, 7 p.m. Sunday, April 28, Ocean City Performing Arts Center