Although the standard classical music repertoire is vast, until recently much of the typical symphony orchestra playlist was dominated by greatest-hits masterworks by long-dead European composers with rock-star names – Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky. Although each of the three pieces performed by the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra Friday night in Rehoboth Beach (reprised this weekend in Ocean City and at Chesapeake College) were also composed by long-dead European composers – one that even the principal players who performed her overture had never heard of – it may as well have been a world premiere to those in attendance in the acoustically bright Epworth United Methodist Church sanctuary.
Never mind that it was written in 1873, the Overture in D major, Op. 43 by pioneering Swedish composer Elfrida Andree was new even to many players on stage before they began rehearsing it. (Full disclosure: I never heard of her before either.) Andree was considered pioneering largely because she was female. Women composers and conductors, such as herself, were a minority rarely recognized or even given a chance to publish or perform their works. Her thrilling overture fell well within the late Romantic idiom of the time, but with beautiful deviations. Surprising and lovely solos pop up throughout the piece, largely by woodwinds and French horn, led in the 43-player MSO ensemble by first flutist Mindy Heinsohn, first oboist Dana Newcomb, first clarinetist Jay Niepotter and first bassoonist Kari Shea.
In part because the woodwind section was so instrumental to this performance, Heinsohn, a 2004 Easton High School alum and graduate of the Yale School of Music and Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, was chosen to make opening remarks about the program before introducing concertmaster Kim McCollum, followed by the entrance of music director Michael Repper. He wasted no time diving into this remarkable rediscovery, which, besides the woodwind solos, is marked also by soaring first-violin melodies.
And that was just the first 20 minutes of the concert. The Symphonic Variations by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a promisingly mature piece for a composer who died in 1912 at the age of 37, came next. Inspired by an African-American poem, “I Am Troubled in Mind,” the variations flow from one into another without pause along a theme established by brass instruments, principally tuba, trombones and French horns, led by Zach Bridges, Jeffrey Gaylord and Michael Hall, respectively. Without the usual pauses between variations, the piece flows like a cascading river that helped make Coleridge-Taylor a trans-Atlantic superstar at a time when his racial identity might not have been widely known. (No Facebook or Instagram.) Posthumously, much of his music was not recognized then in the music industry and is no longer published. As a result, much of his work is new again in our time.
After intermission, Mendelssohn’s historically significant Symphony No. 5, better known as the “Reformation Symphony,” turns the concert program back to traditional classical music sources though not exactly in the greatest-hits category. Not that it is deficient as a masterwork, but it is on a once-controversial theme. Religious uprisings, even of centuries past, linger in the minds of future generations. The Reformation, of course, refers to the Protestant revolt against Catholic hegemony, particularly in Europe.
The four-movement symphony proclaims which side Mendelssohn is on with a salute to Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation widely credited as author of the hymn translated from German into “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The opening Andante, appropriately solemn and contemplative, gives way to a joyful and exuberant second movement Allegro Vivace, as if celebrating the Reformation to come, though it had already advanced 300 years earlier with the “Augsburg Confession” enumerating Lutheranism articles of faith. The third-movement Andante offers a melodic respite from controversy that melds without pause into the full orchestra, fourth-movement statement of resolve and determination with a glory-be finish, which left some in the audience hesitant, at first, to offer a standing ovation. Was that three or four movements?
No matter, the “Reformation Symphony” was a fitting conclusion to a greatest-hits medley of gems many of us have never heard before. Hopefully, it’s part of an accumulating trend. The Metropolitan Opera has been trying to recruit new, younger audiences by staging works by living artists on contemporary themes. Credit Repper and the MSO for unearthing great music by composers whose work has been buried by centuries-old racial and gender biases. Bravo.
Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra
Opening concert, Nov. 3, Rehoboth Beach, followed by concerts 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, Ocean City Performing Arts Center, and Sunday, Nov. 5, Todd Performing Arts Center, Chesapeake College, Wye Mills. midatlanticsymphony.org