In the final hours–thankfully–of 2020, the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra served up an evening of classical as well as pops comfort food. After the year from hell, we could all use a little comfort–perhaps appropriately in a house of worship.
My wife and I caught it on livestream. And so can you through Jan. 7.
As he has for concerts the MSO performed since last March when all our lives suddenly were confined by varying degrees of isolation, Maestro Julien Benichou has skillfully wrought programs that can be performed live with as much safety as one could ask. A small ensemble, 16 musicians for this concert, play only strings while spread out and wearing masks. The Easton-based orchestra performs before a limited and socially distanced live audience and a much wider one on YouTube.
The New Year’s Eve program opened with a trio of pieces by Johann Strauss II, beginning with a short but sweet polka comprised of pizzicato string-plucking followed by a formal waltz, Wiener Blut, translating as Viennese Blood. Your mind’s eye could visualize ball gowns and tails swirling on a grand dance floor. The Strauss troika concluded with the overture from the operetta Die Fledermaus, which introduced us to the luscious voice of mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez.
Tchaikovsky’s String Serenade, perfect for a string-only orchestra, served up perhaps the evening’s most familiar comfort menu item with its festive waltz melody that even classical neophytes would recognize. Leaping from the 1880s to 1945, Chavez returned to the stage for one of the evening’s emotional highlights, singing “La Vie en Rose” like she owns it, though it will always belong to Edith Piaf. The legendary Piaf’s reedy rendition evokes tears of joy in memory of falling in love and seeing the world “in pink,” as if through rose-colored glasses. Chavez brings a far richer tone to the song while losing none of its poignancy.
Benichou next chose to rouse us with a salute to Winter from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The current season marches in furiously on the resolute bowstring of concertmaster Regi Papa, which in the next movement settles into a windswept reflection gently accompanied by the viola, cello, and bass.
Abruptly changing pace again, this time turning to Broadway, Chavez delivers the ultimately tragic “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” before Benichou returns to the Viennese waltz with Strauss’ buoyant Wine, Women, and Song.
The maestro was sure to make room in the program for “Carmen,” the opera for which Chavez is best known, having performed the Bizet masterpiece for various companies, including the New York City Opera. In Habanera, she displayed her acting chops while trilling through the saucy refrain, “Love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame” (sung in French, of course). Together with the rollicking Gypsy Song, also from “Carmen,” Chavez exercised her vocal dexterity in both buttery lower registers and soaring soprano coloratura.
But she was hardly done. Returning to opera, Chavez sang from the impish Isabella role in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri,” navigating the highs and lows again with ease.
Next to that, “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady” must be a delightful child’s play to her. Chavez’s final assignment from Benichou was to deliver the traditional Auld Lang Syne singalong as a “sing alone” for the masked live audience. (But you can singalong at home.)
The orchestra did, however, close with a live clap-along string finale.
On that note, it occurred to me that there is hope for a far better new year. Maybe it takes a new millennium 21 years to come of age. Happy 2021.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.
A TOAST TO THE NEW YEAR
Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve concert from Easton Church of God featuring mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez as soloist is available to be viewed through Jan. 7. Tickets are $25. https://midatlanticsymphony.org/ 410-289-3440