Orchestra stories

Delaware Symphony Orchestra presents Smetana, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky

4 minute read
DSO members wear masks, sit behind plexiglass, and play for a nearly empty house, but livestreaming has upsides for audiences. (Photo courtesy of Delaware Symphony Orchestra.)
DSO members wear masks, sit behind plexiglass, and play for a nearly empty house, but livestreaming has upsides for audiences. (Photo courtesy of Delaware Symphony Orchestra.)

The Delaware Symphony Orchestra recently released another of its full-length livestream concerts. Conducted by David Amado, each has a different musical focus, and this one features three classical standards in reverent performances with some revelatory musical moments.

Planning this season, the DSO included flexibility as one of its goals. Traditionally, the orchestra alternates large concerts with chamber offerings. But this year, music director Amado and executive director J.C. Barker chose to open in fall 2020 with three back-to-back chamber concerts—intimate ticketed events recorded in front of a small audience released for monthlong public viewing.

Listening to the river

In January, the orchestra began presenting its second phase: six full-length concerts (one each month) recorded onstage at their regular venue, Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. For this third concert, Amado said in his opening remarks, “like many Seinfeld episodes, classical music isn’t really about anything.” While music may work artistically to make you feel a particular way, it doesn’t usually tell a story. But here he focused on three 1870s works that “lie beyond the abstract. . .and rely on extra-musical, concrete inspirations.”

The first is Má Vlast: Vltava (My Home: The Moldau) by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). After nonmusical (and musical) false starts, Smetana’s works came to define the Czech identity, and one of his most famous compositions is this evocative and frequently recorded series of six symphonic poems called Má Vlast. Each work in the suite reflects something quintessentially Bohemian, and here it is the Moldau. In eight continuous sections, the composer charts the course of this great river, rising in rapids and flowing majestically through Prague to join the Elbe.

The work opens with flutes and woodwinds in a bubbling evocation of the stream at its source, picking up orchestral dimension as the Moldau swells across geography and history. Often this piece, replete with rolling timpani and strong brass, is played as a full-bodied, semibombastic evocation of nationalism. But here, Amado’s introspective interpretation (and slightly smaller forces) bring its tender elements to the fore. Still evoking the composer’s passion, this is an intimate, elegiac, poetic rendition of the emotion-filled paean that Smetana composed near the end of his life.

Delicacy and longing

The program’s second work is the luscious, heart-melting Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Its lyricism is unusual for this composer, who wrote it as a gift to his wife for her birthday and premiered it in their home on Christmas morning 1870. Originally titled Tribschen Idyll (the name of their house in Switzerland), it was scored for 13 instruments (all that would fit on the staircase). Later, Wagner amplified it for 35 musicians, and it was given its current title.

The Idyll’s five-note rising theme and its lullaby-like quality create an intimacy and joyous sense of peace totally different from Wagner’s usual compositions, heavy with drama and muscularity. Here, luminous passages for solo instruments (horn, oboe, violin) ride over a pillow of sustained sound, and throughout this performance, the DSO achieves an expectant delicacy filled with romantic longing. In his pre-concert remarks, Amado talks frankly about the composer’s Nazi imprimatur and his problematic political legacy, putting it in perspective with this work, one of the conductor’s favorites.

A treat to hear and see

The program’s final piece is by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), another composer who, like Smetana, was instrumental in establishing a national sound, here Russian. The work is a nine-section suite of music from Swan Lake, extracted from the full-length ballet score that is one of this composer’s most beloved works. It includes Danse des Cygnes (Dance of the Swans), a series of colorfully orchestrated nationalistic dances (Hungarian, Spanish, Neapolitan, Polish), and a famous lyrical waltz.

Much of the music is familiar, though some is not, and Amado presents it all freshly. It’s a delight to have these movements given precise care as orchestral gems. Throughout, spritely or meltingly beautiful solos and duos feature soloists in practically every orchestra section. At the ballet, these virtuosic players would be buried unseen in the pit, so here it’s a treat to both hear their music and see them make it.

These concerts are recorded live and straight through, as an audience in the room would experience them, with only nonmusical editing. The immediacy is palpable and welcome, and a bonus of video is the opportunity to move that cursor around and revisit favorite sections. The stage of the Grand is bare except for lights on the theater’s brick wall. Of course, there are the ubiquitous, necessary acres of plexiglass screens to contend with, for both musicians and viewers. But they visually fall away after a while, affording the treat—as in much virtual performance—of seeing musicians and conductor intimately at work in pieces that seem both familiar and new.

Image description: In a view from above, members of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra play their instruments onstage. The strings players wear black facemasks, and the horn players play from behind individual plexiglass barriers.

What, When, Where

Delaware Symphony Orchestra presents its Classics Series III. Bedřich Smetana, Má Vlast: Vltava (My Home: The Moldau); Richard Wagner, Siegfried Idyll; and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake, Suite Op. 20a. Conducted by David Amado. Performed on March 26, 2021, at the Wilmington Grand Opera House, and available for ticketed streaming on demand through April 29, 2021. www.delawaresymphony.org.

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