Saturday evening the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra and pianist Paolo André Gauldi took to the stage at the Wilson Center to perform works by Bizet and Chopin. As the opening night of what looks to be a promising 50th anniversary season, this was more than a concert – it was an event!

Drinks and friendly conversations filled the lobby before the performance.  Live music has been missing from the lives of many patrons in the last year and a half, and people were excited for this grand re-entry. The Bajisima Jazz Quintet, led by UNCW professor Natalie Boeyink, underscored the energetic atmosphere in the lobby by serenading the crowd as they wandered around the Wilson Center and found their way to their seats.

As the musicians tuned their instruments and the lights dimmed, the crowd grew hushed during the preshow announcement. The announcement began like any ordinary preshow reminder to silence one’s phone, but heightened the spectacular nature of the night by advising the crowd to “enjoy the break from your electronic devices and immerse yourselves in this experience.” The anticipation reached its peak and the stage was set for a truly delightful evening of music!

Led by conductor Steven Errante, and guest vocal soloist Marva Robinson, the orchestra opened the night with an unannounced performance of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Robinson’s performance was as moving as it was impressive. Accompanied by the passionate orchestra, the anthem drew cheers and thunderous applause from the audience.

The first programmed performance of the evening was Bizet’s enchanting work, Symphony in C. The musicians effectively bounced between the lively jovial sections and the fast-paced pianissimos in the first movement, Allegro vivo. In the second movement, Adagio, the oboes (played masterfully by Sarah Parker and Robert Burkett) stood out as the orchestra slowly swelled around them in the movement’s climactic finale. The third and fourth movements, Allegro Vivace: [Minuet] – Trio and Allegro Vivace, demonstrated the orchestra’s technical prowess with increasing vivacity; if the third movement felt like a comfortable jaunt, the fourth felt like a full gallop.

After a brief intermission, we were brought back into the evening’s performance with a short speech by the orchestra’s executive director, Liz Scanlon. She welcomed us back to the live-music setting on behalf of the WSO, indicating that it had been 601 days since their last performance. But rest assured, the orchestra is back and better than ever!

“Wilmington is growing,” Scanlon said, “and we need to grow with it.” She marveled at how many students were present at the performance and mentioned how important the younger generation is for the 50-year old organization. She quipped, “We’re not your grandma’s orchestra. We’re your kids’ and grandkids’ orchestra.”

After Scanlon’s speech, soloist Paolo André Gauldi took the stage to perform the evening’s main piece: Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21. Having attended a brief event with Gauldi last month at the Cameron Art Museum, I had an inkling of the kind of talent he has. Watching him perform the piece in its entirety was a sight to behold; his fingers seemed to float up and down the entire length of the piano gracefully.

Gauldi’s technical skill was backed up beautifully by the orchestra. Together they built to an exciting climax of the first movement, Maestoso. The overpowering exhilaration of the first movement gave way to the tenderly passionate second movement, Larghetto, which Chopin composed while enamored with a Polish soprano; this movement is widely considered a masterwork of Chopin’s and the orchestra performed it movingly. The strings swelled and gently receded under Gauldi’s light and dreamy piano.  The third movement, Allegro Vivace, all but caused the audience to get up and dance. Gauldi’s showmanship and the orchestra’s powerful accompaniment left us marveling! To no one’s surprise, the night ended with a rousing standing ovation, which brought Gauldi back out for a solo encore, performing one of Chopin’s shorter compositions.

This is only the first of a series of upcoming concerts for the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary season. The evening proved to be a very special night out, a reminder of what we have to look forward to as we begin to come together as a community once more to enjoy the music we love. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what else the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra has to offer this season!