The musicians of the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra were probably thrilled beyond measure Sunday afternoon at Proctors. It was the first time in 25 months that the full orchestra has been able to play a concert before a live audience.
In celebration of that event and because it’s the orchestra’s 88th season, music director Glen Cortese chose “Heroes and Legends” as the season’s theme. So not only was music chosen to reflect that but also to extend an invitation to honor first responders and medical personnel for their efforts during the pandemic and to greet 14 fourth-graders from Girl Scout Troop 1385 from Loudonville on stage who are working on their music merit badge and to learn how to behave in a concert hall.
All this set the stage for the first piece: Brahms’ “Tragic Overture” that Cortese said was inspired by Goethe’s Faust. It’s a somber work with dark harmonies. The orchestra sounded a bit tentative although the strings had a lovely warm, burnished sound. Pitch tended to waver in the winds as it did for much of the first half, probably because the musicians needed some time to get their stage ears back. By the final work on the program. Mendelssohn’s “Reformation Symphony,” the winds had settled in nicely to a center with blended balances. Cortese set a moderate tempo, however, which allowed for strong rhythmic precision.
Valerie Coleman’s fabulous “Seven O’Clock Shout” celebrated the ritual early in the pandemic when people would shout, make noise and call out to friends from their windows at 7 p.m. each night as a way to offset everyone’s isolation. The piece, which is fairly short, started slowly with a few wind solos before bouncing into a light-hearted, joyous exclamation from the whole orchestra complete with cheers and foot stomping from the musicians. The orchestra did all right with the unfamiliar idiom of new music.
They also did well with Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” which calls for a narrator of some of the things Lincoln said. Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy provided a strong, clear, resonant voice to those lines. Copland’s signature open harmonies began the work that later integrated two folk tunes (“Camptown Races” and “Springfield Mountain”) in a spirted frolic. Then, long lines interspersed with Lincoln’s words about democracy, bearing responsibility, finding new paths. The audience responded with a huge applause.
But the orchestra was completely at home with the four movements of Mendelssohn’s symphony. Unlike much of his work, which is wonderfully lyrical, spirited and thrilling to play, this work commemorated the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s declaration of the new Protestant faith. So dark and dramatic sounds prevailed in the first and finale. The inner two movements, however, were light and dancing. The orchestra was blended, built up dynamic levels well, pitch was centered, and there was a sense of comfortable-ness that projected.
The next SSO concert is April 3 with NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and pianist Ryan Reilly.