The National Music Festival opened the grand symphonic portion of its two-week mentoring program that brings to Washington College’s Decker Theater the biggest orchestral sound you’ll likely hear anywhere on the Delmarva Peninsula.
That takes nothing from the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, the region’s only fully professional classical music orchestra. It just signed its Grammy-winning music director Michael Repper through the 2024-25 season. But with 98 apprentice musicians who audition for highly competitive slots to be festival mentees, plus 20 master musicians who are their mentors, there may be up to 110 players in National Music’s (NMF) finale next Saturday for Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Not even the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra or many other world-class orchestras can match that heft on any given night. Those musicians are paid union scale.
Judging from the opening two symphonic concerts, the future seems bright for these young prospects.
The NMF, now in its 11th season in 13 years due to two COVID-canceled festivals – draws players from 10 countries and 30 states – to learn and practice with professionals so that they are ready to perform within a week. It’s their opportunity to train for a career. But this is no high-school tryout. Those who make it into the festival are at least 18 years old, and many more are post-graduate, some with masters and doctorates to their credit. They can play. And as pros, they would have only a week, or less, to rehearse for symphony orchestra performances.
I attended Saturday night’s concert in person and listened to an audio of the Friday night program. For me, the highlight of the listening experience was the Concerto in E for Two Pianos by Nadine Dana Suesse, a piece that is rarely performed anymore. A contemporary of George Gershwin, Suesse wrote popular songs like “You Oughta Be in Pictures” and classical works such as “Concerto in Three Rhythms,” commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman in the wake of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” So it’s not for nothing that Suesse, who studied with one of Gershwin’s mentors, became known as “the girl Gershwin.” But, as with many women artists of the ’30s, her work has been all but forgotten.
Saturday’s event included a rousing piece by another largely overlooked composer – this one a contemporary of Beethoven. In a pre-concert “explication,” Phillip Rosenberg, brother of Richard, the festival’s artistic director, also conducted Beethoven’s Seventh later that night. Phillip remarked that certain passages in the piece by French romantic composer Etienne Mehul seemed to be borrowed from a Beethoven concerto. Or, was it a matter of, as Phillip quoted Robert Schumann, “Who copied whom?”
More fascinating to me, especially while hearing it performed so richly, was that Beethoven was essentially deaf at the time. Phillip Rosenberg observed that a Beethoven friend who invented the metronome helped rescue the Seventh Symphony. His friend also developed an earpiece that enabled Beethoven to hear bits of his composition played on the fortepiano faintly. Only then did he realize its tempo was far too slow. With the metronome, he corrected the error.
There’s a story behind every great accomplishment. But to me, it’s a miracle that anyone could write such a masterpiece without the ability to hear it.
But first, the performance of the opening piece by the French composer Mehul, conducted by Simon Charette. A placid reed introduction sets up a lush strings accompaniment that, in turn, prompts a piping horn overlay and a signal of what’s to come. The opening theme morphs into a march-like pace rising to a bombastic crescendo with all horns on deck and to their feet in a patriotic stance said to have competed with “La Marseillaise” for the French national anthem. I could not detect a borrowed Ludwig van Beethoven phrase.
Next, the 10-movement (including prologue) “Apollon Musagete” (“Apollo, Leader of the Muses”) was Stravinsky’s first ballet piece written in collaboration with dancer/choreographer George Balanchine. As conducted by Asieh Mahyar, the string orchestra played standing, except for the cellists. The romantically melodic opening with sonorous cello undercurrents led to a series of neoclassical solos by violinist Elizabeth Adams, her mentee Taylor Zinn and violin cellist Ben Capps. Most of the later movements are quite short, diverging in temperament and tempo, which would come visually alive if performed with dance partners. A suspenseful approach to the final movement would suit a murder mystery – perhaps a Hitchcock film. Might one of the muses be a prime suspect?
While a very different Stravinsky anchored the Friday night concert with his “Firebird Suite,” Saturday’s climactic conclusion was reserved for Beethoven, Richard Rosenberg conducting a full orchestra. The first movement opened in an authoritative vivace tempo that came almost to a pause before resuming with a celebratory attitude that settled into a pastoral retreat. From there, it slowly built in intensity and instrumental variation. The fast-tempo scherzo to follow makes a sly joke of a minuet that’s too fast for a ballroom dance but later calms down to a waltz-like resolution. An allegro con brio of drumbeats announced the final movement, setting the pace for a chorus of strings that had each player leaning in furiously with their bows, egged on by reeds and horns, all rock-’n’-rollin’ – classically, of course – with huge intensity.
As the audience filed out after three standing ovations, a woman just behind us shouted above the crowd noise: “That was glorious!”
I don’t disagree.
There are two more Festival Symphony Orchestra concerts on Friday and Saturday nights, plus a “Forest Walk” concert Wednesday afternoon with musicians scattered along the trails at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely and chamber concerts in Hotchkiss Recital Hall at Washington College on Thursday evenings, plus several free pop-up concerts scattered around Chestertown.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.