“This was,” as Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra board president Jeffrey Parker said, “the most unconventional season ever.” And the season finale Thursday night, performed live in Easton–like each previous MSO concert in this pandemic-infected season–was no less ‘unconventional.’ Only more so.
The concert, available on live-stream through April 29, opened with a world premiere commissioned by the Mid-Atlantic orchestra–its first commission in 12 years–by Baltimore-based composer James Lee III. (Full disclosure: I viewed this concert by live-stream, not in person.)
The MSO has a close connection with Lee, a professor of music at Morgan State University, where its general manager and lead percussionist, Dane Krich, is the director of percussion studies. With little demand for new work during the artistic desert of the pandemic year 2020, Lee wrote a piece for one of the few orchestras performing throughout the current season. Lee said his Restored Images, written specifically for a string orchestra of 18 players, is his response to the challenges of 2020. “After Minneapolis,” he said, referring to the George Floyd murder at the hands–or rather, knees–of convicted former cop Derek Chauvin, “not that many people were in the mood to celebrate. Various tensions were always arising. Amid all the darkness and sadness, there are notes of hope. And you have these bell tones of things becoming much calmer.”
Restored Images begins solemnly with slowly ascending lines growing more urgent as the challenges we can imagine or vividly recall lead to hope and joy over what was once considered normal life. The word ‘Hopeful’ plastered across edifices all over downtown Easton comes to mind. Whether the joy anticipated in Lee’s piece comes to fruition is for the listener to accept or deny. To me, hopefulness is left in doubt, perhaps as it should be. Still, something of a downer.
A similar musical throughline is evident in Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Before he graduated from what was known as High German Romanticism into atonal modernism–young Schoenberg was a disciple of Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. He wrote music for operettas, including this piece composed for a string sextet, later transcribed for string orchestras. Inspired by a Richard Dehmel poem, it tells the story of two lovers alone in the woods. The woman confesses that she’s pregnant by another man and, after some hesitation, her current lover says he will accept the child as his own. The nocturnal mood is carried by cellos, picked up by lighter tones of violas before growing agitated as news of her expectancy is revealed. Confusion and emotional chaos ensue before a resolution of forgiveness is suggested by mellow cellos and violins. Still, the ending feels almost indifferent, certainly unresolved. Life may well be like that, particularly in arenas of romance. But musically, Verklarte Nacht is a bit like a therapy session curtailed too soon.
With no intermission, the third piece comes as a stark break from the previous two—almost a mood-altering nullification. To me, having reviewed tango-based musicals in Queens, New York, for Newsday, Astor Piazzolla’s Aconcagua Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra was a welcome break from moody strings of lockdown and love-lorn recoveries.
Argentinian soloist Rodolfo Zanetti proved to be, as advertised, a virtuoso on the bandoneon, a concertina/accordion-style instrument essential to tango ensembles popular all over his homeland. While the bandoneon can hold its own when matched with a string orchestra, it is usually performed with other bandoneonistas playing together or in isolated solo riffs that draw applause often associated in other contexts with drum or sax solos. The opening lassitude of Piazzolla’s 1979 piece, named for the highest mountain in South America, gives way to tango-laced exuberance in which you can almost, but not quite, hear the stomping feet of women in spike heels. If only the MSO had dancers in its bandoneon budget.
Nevertheless, the orchestra deserves high marks for performing an unlikely repertoire on a symphonic stage, deftly led by maestro Julien Benichou. You may never hear such a range of largely obscure works again. Enough meat-and-potatoes Beethoven, OK? It’s been a quarter of a millennium since his birth. What difference will a year make if we don’t hear him again until the next season or so. Roll over, Ludwig.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic and editor now living in Easton.
MID-ATLANTIC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA SEASON FINALE
Restored Images, a world premiere by James Lee III commissioned by the MSO; Verklante Nacht by Schoenberg, and Aconcagua Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra, by Piazzolla, featuring soloist Rodolfo Zanetti. Thursday night, April 22, at Easton Church of God. Available on live-stream video through April 29, midatlanticsymphony.org; $15, 888-846-8600.