Artistically speaking, anyone with “Keats” and “Bach” in their name is destined for greatness. At the opening concert of the Wilmington Symphony, under the continued direction of Steven Errante, violinist Keats Dieffenbach (a Port City native) was a poet-musician performing the Violin Concerto in D Minor by Jean Sibelius with deep expression and technical mastery. Indeed, Dieffenbach’s artistry and execution were enhanced by her instrument, an exquisite Bergonzi violin made in 1723 on loan from Julliard.  The concerto is a tumultuous work not always easy to follow, and contains what James Hepokoski calls a “surplus density of compositional pondering.” Moreover, the composer combines this post-Romantic profundity with demanding virtuosity. Dieffenbach handled both characteristics of the piece extremely well. Of particular note were scales and double-stops in the cadenza of the first movement, as well as warmth of tone and lovely vibrato produced in the Adagio. The third movement, for me, was a bit of a letdown. Even though Dieffenbach continued to play skillfully one sensed that she favors the earlier movements and may tacitly share my opinion that in the third Sibelius creates “effects without causes.”

The fact the orchestra generally failed to match Dieffenbach’s level of expression was not of great concern as all focus was on the soloist. To be fair, there were moments when the WSO suddenly rose to a heightened state of passion, such as in the middle of the second movement. But for the most part the orchestra seemed rather nonplussed by the score and remained content to let Dieffenbach do all the work. Nevertheless, she was brilliant and launched the new season in dynamic fashion.
The Sibelius concerto actually filled the second half of the program, and while I found this a bit unusual, it made sense in terms of building up to the visiting virtuoso.  The first half of the concert was devoted first to Dmitri Shostakovich’s, “Festive Overture,” and Beethoven’s First Symphony. The latter marks the beginning of the WSO’s plan to perform all nine symphonies over the next five years. The overture was a perfect commencement piece for the year. Aside from the brass section needing just a bit more tenacity in the opening bars, the orchestra heralded their return to the stage quite well. In particular, the violins continue to build on last year’s improved sound, and unless I’m mistaken, on this occasion Concertmaster Yamashita sat in the back row of the section!  At first, when Beverly Andrews (Associate Concertmaster) preceded Errante onstage, I assumed Yamashita was absent until I noticed him in the last row of the first violins. Apparently, by relocating Yamashita, Errante has discovered a way to assist the weaker violin players, similar to putting a strong singer near the shy ones in a church choir.

If the orchestra plays all nine Beethoven symphonies as well as they did the First Symphony, it will be quite an accomplishment.  The work is early, of course, and some significant challenges await the WSO once “Eroica” is on the bill. At least the project has begun on the right foot. For example, the tempo in the first movement was ambitious (and perhaps a tad more brisk than what the woodwinds might have preferred), but to me this demonstrated a certain confidence among the strings that has often been missing in recent years. When most exposed, such as in the second movement, the violins can still lapse into timid playing that leads to intonation problems, but overall they projected an air of assuredness. 

The one trend that could become a problem is the players’ apparent tendency to treat the first time through any to-be-repeated material (such as a minuet) as a “run through,” and then to perform much better the second time. I’m certain this is unintentional, but the orchestra might want to bring that “we can do better!” spirit to the beginning of a movement as well.  Apart from this, the WSO should be congratulated on one of its stronger concerts in recent memory.