The music featured in the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s second online concert is all over the place — a lot like the emotions this pandemic has elicited from all of us.
It begins with the deep mourning that Arvo Part weaves throughout his “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten” and is followed by the giddy joy of Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Suite,” perfectly punctuated with percussion and timpani. The concert ends with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” a tapestry of emotions composed “from inner compulsion.”
The concert was recorded at the Collins Center for the Arts on March 14 and can be watched until April 26.
Because of the COVID-19 gathering limits there could be just 50 people, including orchestra members, guest soloists, conductor, camera operators, engineers and staff in the building for recording sessions. That also limited the maestro’s musical choices.
As he often does, Conductor Lucas Richman combines in this offering familiar classical music like Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade” with the less familiar, such as the Part composition, which the symphony performs for the first time. The maestro designed this virtual season to showcase sections of the orchestra, and the percussion and timpani sections are featured in the “Carmen Suite,” a rousing romp that includes the well known “Toreador Song” used in countless films and commercials.
Estonian composer Part, now 85, never met British composer Benjamin Britten, best known for “Peter Grimes” and “War Requiem,” but admired his work enormously, Richman said in his introduction to the piece. When Britten died in 1976 at the age of 63, Part was deeply disappointed the two would never meet.
The “Cantus” begins with three beats of silence, then a bell tolls three times. The violins begin a descending A minor scale and listeners descend into the darkness of mourning. It is as if the whole orchestra begins weeping then slides into crying until, finally, it is sobbing with grief. The bell tolls throughout the piece, offering a bright and hopeful sound in the darkness.
Shchedrin, now 88, composed the “Carmen Suite” in 1967 for his wife, the prima ballerina Maja Plisetskaya. It is based on French composer Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” one of the most performed operas in the world. Shchedrin kept Bizet’s melodies with new instrumentation, rhythms and harmonies and changed the order of the movements.
Percussion players Stuart Marrs, Mark Fredericks, John Mehrmann and Michael Vent play, among other instruments, the marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, castanets, bongos, tubular bells, snare drum, cymbals, triangle and bass drum. Timpanist Nancy Rowe’s kettle drums rumbled under all those percussion instruments and the strings.
The joy of listening at home to this rousing ballet score is that concertgoers can get up and dance without fear of embarrassment. The lively and diverse percussion section brings the dancing gypsy Carmen, her lovers, the bullfighters and toreadors and the judgmental townspeople to life. They spring off the screen and dance all over concertgoers. It is a joyous experience.
Tchaikovsky’s epic “Serenade for Strings” feels like an emotional musical trip through the last year. There’s fear, hope, disappointment, mourning and joy layered throughout the piece.
Somehow, the 26 string players manage to sound like 60 musicians in spite of the composer’s note on his score that said: “The larger number of players in the string orchestra, the more this shall be in accordance with the author’s wishes.”
Richman and the orchestra are proving during the BSO’s 125th season that bigger is not necessarily better, at least not online. The maestro’s musical choices are challenging the musicians and delighting concertgoers in ways not thought possible a year ago. Everyone wants back in that big, bright concert hall, but the symphony and Richman are proving that we don’t have to be there together at the same time to share beautiful music.
The next concert, “Lyrical Wonders,” will combine instruments and voice in pieces the BSO has not performed before and will feature soloists. The concert will be available at 7 p.m. April 23 and remain accessible for the following 30 days. For information, visit bangorsymphony.org.