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Closing out their 2022/2023 season, the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra paired two modern pieces, Andrés Martin's Concerto No.2 for the double bass (Kebra-Seyoun Charles, soloist) and Shostakovitch's 5th Symphony. It was a pairing that showcased the dynamic acoustic range of symphonic music and the skill of the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra musicians.
It is interesting to witness the final show of an orchestra's season when you have not witnessed the rest of the season. "Interesting" because there is an air of familiarity among the other attendees, a certain sadness that the season is ending, but also an air of anticipation for the new season. These feelings all buzzed as the audience milled from the parking lot to their seats for this final performance. The audience seemed in no hurry for the season to be over, taking their time to sit, but still excited to hear this last performance. As for me, I was excited to be treated to evening's presentation of two contrasting pieces, a 2012 concerto and a 1937 full symphony.
The first half of the evening was a pleasant surprise. Martin was the more modern of the evening's two composers, and one with whom I am less familiar. I had no expectations, only anticipation. The soloist was Kebra-Seyoun Charles, an acclaimed bass virtuoso who is currently the principal bassist at Juilliard and winner of numerous awards and accolades, notably the Sphinx Competition. Clad in a jumpsuit of elegant, bright red, carrying his enormous bass almost casually, and wearing a mischievous smile, Charles walked onto stage, took his soloist position, and displayed a presence that let the audience know we were in capable hands.
The piece is strikingly understated in its power. It is not a "flashy" piece with obvious bombast with the bass howling in front. Rather, the music flows with the elegant, understated power of waves on a beach – calm and subdued until they rear out of the ocean and crash. This may sound like an odd showcase for a bass soloist, but the bass carried the motif of the work, leading the rest of the orchestra through the movements: the dramatic flair of the first movement (Tangueramente), the gentleness of the second (Nocturno), and the final, almost frantic urgency of the third (Allegro Obsesivo). Charles further added character to the performance of the piece itself, playing affectively but always in control. Given what a low instrument the double bass is, the rest of the orchestra was masterful in creating support without drowning it out.
After a standing ovation, we were treated to a solo encore.
Despite being more familiar with the work of Shostakovitch (I'm very fond of the Jazz Suite No. 2 Waltz) and having expectations for the performance, I still found myself pleasantly surprised when the audience returned from intermission and we transitioned into the second half of the show. After conductor Steven Errante gave a quick overview of the piece and its movements, the orchestra tuned their instruments one last time. There was a moment of silence and then the piece burst to life.
Despite being a modern composer, I maintain that Shostakovitch has a dramatic flair that would make him at home among the Romantics. His 5th Symphony starts with the loudest, most dramatic movement (Moderato). The orchestra created a full, rich sound that showcased their entire range. With musical themes that get playfully tossed around the instrument sections, it's almost impossible to listen to this piece passively. It expects and creates an active listener. I can only imagine how physically demanding it is to play music like this, but the orchestra made it look effortless.
The second movement (Allegretto) may be my favorite because of the absolute drama of it all. It's a waltz, but with its big sound and contrasting harmonies, it's a waltz with a chaotic soundscape. If you imagine a waltz in a flaming Gothic mansion, then you will have a sense of how emotionally demanding the piece is. After that, the subdued third movement (Largo) might be a chance to relax if it wasn't so melancholic. The cellos, in particular, put in a lot of leg work in this movement, and they rose to the occasion. The fourth (Allegro non troppo) starts as moody as the third but as chaotic as the second. Difficult to articulate in words, the violins consistently played at their highest range while the percussion and wind sections fought to be heard. The piece sounds stressful until a cathartic shift from minor to major, where almost four movements worth of pent-up tension and conflict are gloriously released. It's hard not to be emotionally affected by that transition, and I heard audible sighs from the audience around me before we all stood and applauded.
The pairing of Martin's No.2 Concerto for double bass with Shostakovich's 5th Symphony created an evening of glorious music that alternated between subtle majesty and explosive catharsis, with an orchestra who rose to the occasion to make it all look easy. While sad to only get in on the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra at their season close, this writer eagerly awaits the announcement for next season.