It was an evening of firsts: the first concert of the 25th anniversary season of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, the first performance conducted by Michael Repper as the MSO’s new music director, and the first major cultural event at Chesapeake College’s Todd Performing Arts Center since COVID shut it down two years ago.
But the priority Thursday night on the Wye Mills campus was music. As led by Repper in his debut, the performance was at once rousing and soothing. Most rousing was the opening piece, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, also known as “Emperor,” featuring guest soloist Michael McHale. The first movement, 20 minutes in length, begins with a piano solo without an orchestral introduction, other than three short sonorous chords. That approach was unheard of at the time, representing another first on the evening’s program. Also unusual, although not a first, is the structure of the second and third movements, played without a pause between them.
From the revolutionary concerto’s opening notes, McHale riveted our attention with his assertive, indeed “heroic” attack on the keyboard, symbolic of the Napoleonic Wars that were a constant real-time inspiration for Beethoven, or it might have been in protest, as he composed “Emperor.” This unofficial title may or may not refer to Napoleon, of whom Beethoven was no fan.
The movement settles into pastoral passages with a teardrop interplay with the orchestra’s large string section, including 13 violins, led by concertmaster Kimberly McCollum and second violinist Celaya Kirchner. Later, a march-like call and response pit the pianist and orchestra, challenging each other right up to the dramatic finish.
The second movement suggests a more conversational interchange, a nocturne with muted strings and wind instruments, particularly oboe and flute, led by Dana Newcomb and Mindy Heinsohn. The third movement follows immediately with a lone bassoon siren (Terry Ewell) announcing a change of tempo and temperament that carries over to the final movements, which foretell or celebrate victory in a solo piano rondo with bass-and-cello underpinnings led by Chris Chlumsky and Jacques-Pierre Malan. The finale closes with timpani punctuation delivered by Barry Dove.
After intermission, the audience in the center seats got a better look at the conducting mannerisms of the new music director, who was largely hidden by the piano in the Beethoven opener. To applause, Repper introduced Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major as a “sunny and joyous piece that’s all about water and the river Rhine.” With the fury of Hurricane Ian flooding all over the news, “Rhenish” offered a soothing, if momentary, respite for those of us out of harm’s way. It is the symphony Repper himself chose for his MSO debut.
The first movement, Lebhaft (for lively), lives up to its billing with a sonata in a heroic stance for full orchestra. It’s followed by a scherzo theme based on a waltz-like German folk dance that conveys a delightful awakening on the Rhine anchored by the lower strings. The nicht schnell (not fast) third movement creates a moment of calm as a dreamlike current gently rocks the boat. Known as the “Cathedral movement,” the fourth is said to have been inspired by Robert and Clara Schumann’s visit to the cathedral in Cologne overlooking the Rhine. The French horn and trombone sections, captained by Karin Berkeley and Jeffrey Gaylord, have waited this long to sound their instruments in a brass chorale signifying a noble house of worship. Returning to earlier themes, the fifth movement, with the voyage’s destination in sight, rises to a spirited hoorah heralded by horns, percussion, and strings, high and low—a time to rejoice for all.
Repper was at his most animated in this finale, bending toward each section, in turn, to implore the musicians to feel and reflect the symphony’s emotional momentum. He and they succeeded on this most rewarding and promising night of firsts.
While the full orchestra doesn’t return in concert until Nov. 10-13, with “Four Seasons” from the perspectives of the northern (Vivaldi) and southern (Piazzolla) hemispheres, you can catch five of the orchestra’s musicians in concert Wednesday, Oct. 5 at Washington College in Chestertown. The Mid-Atlantic Symphony Quintet performs the Piano Quintet in A minor, Opus 30, by Louise Farrenc, and Piano Quintet A major, D. 667 “Trout” by Franz Schubert. The five musicians are violinist Kimberly McCollum, violist Yuri Tomenko, cellist Diana Golden, bassist Chris Chlumsky and pianist Woobin Park. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. washcoll.edu/concert
The MSO Ensemble Series resumes with woodwind quintet concerts on October 28 and 30, a holiday brass quintet on December 17 and 18, a string quartet and piano concert, plus a jazz orchestra next February and May, respectively, all in Rehoboth Beach and Easton. midatlanticsymphony.org
Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra Opening Weekend
Saturday, Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m., Cape Henlopen High School, Lewes, Del.
Sunday, Oct. 2, 3 p.m., Performing Arts Center, Ocean City.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.