The Wilmington Symphony Orchestra debuted an original composition by conductor Steven Errante at the Wilson Center in downtown Wilmington. The piece, entitled Azalea Suite, was commissioned by Wilmington’s own Azalea Festival, which is held in the coastal town every spring to celebrate the annual bloom of this colorful and abundant flora.

The final concert of WSO’s 50th anniversary season was a festive hit! Timely and wonderfully programmed, each musical selection permeated the audience with a springtime fervor. The opening piece, “D’un Matin de Printemps” (On a Spring Morning) composed by Lili Boulanger was a perfect starting note for the celebratory evening. Conductor Errante, in his introduction to the number, noted how Boulanger died shortly after composing this work. While the piece begins sunny and delightful, as one might expect from a spring morning, Errante warned the audience to expect incoming shadows; “we soon realize it’s not as bright and cheery as we thought.” The violins seemed to weep as the promised clouds came rolling in. Like April showers, this was a poignant opening number to an evening that would culminate in Wilmington’s own May flowers.

Following the Boulanger piece, WSO played Debussy’s Petite Suite, an uncharacteristically classical piece from the modernist French composer. The first movement, “En Bateau” (Sailing), demonstrates some of Debussy’s personal inflections that would be developed later in his career. The flute section rippled like the water, and the strings billowed like puffy clouds on a peaceful afternoon. “Cortège,” the second movement, had a sweeping, lively quality. The piece ebbs and flows; like the first movement, the strings and woodwinds played in perfect balance until an abrupt crescendo in the latter half when the brass came in and gave a powerful underbelly to the orchestra’s sound. Although this was only the second of four movements, it so moved the audience that the orchestra was forced to accept the crowd’s uncommon applause between movements.

The third movement, “Menuet,” was played softly and contemplatively. Christina Brier on the harp stood out as she smoothly transitioned the orchestra from one section to another, like ascending a celestial staircase. The final movement, “Ballet,” was the most “Debussy” of them all! The movement between different string sections gave the impression of water lapping up on the shoreline. The cellos magnificently stood out as they effortlessly played alternations of the runs in the violin section. As the piece receded before its final crescendo, the flutes and percussion section played off each other with precision and ease, keeping the momentum moving while still maintaining an air of delicacy.

After a brief intermission, Jonathan Hines of Wilmington Health gave a short announcement. As the evening’s sponsor, Wilmington Health believes in the healing powers of music. Hines said, “Music is vital to health, both of the individual and the community.” He generously thanked the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra on behalf of Wilmington Health and all those in attendance. He urged the audience to recall all the many times they had “sat transfixed and left transformed.” This evening was no exception to the 50-year tradition that WSO has established in the community.

WSO then played Tchaikovsky’s famous “Romeo and Juliet” Overture. The strings played with pain and sorrow, as the piece opens with the tragic tones of foreknowledge, mourning the two lovers of Verona. Later on, they communicated the furious action of the dueling families, with rapid sixteenth notes played in startling cohesion, accompanied by violent crashes in the brass and percussion. But the fury fades as the strings climb high into the love theme. This portion of the piece is so utterly recognizable from its appearance in many movies and TV shows – or notably for younger generations, as the song that plays in The Sims video game when two characters successfully fall in love. Ultimately, the number returns to tragedy, and the bass and timpani powerfully evoked the young lovers’ deaths.

The evening culminated in the beautifully composed original Azalea Suite, by WSO’s conductor Errante. The piece, commissioned by the Azalea Festival to commemorate its 75th anniversary, was completed roughly two years before the premiere. Its subject, obviously, was the azalea shrub, in all its wonderful variations which can be found around Wilmington in April and May. In his introduction to the piece, Errante walked the crowd through each movement, named for a different species of azalea, and modeled after them. Errante printed off a color photograph that included each variety, and labeled them with an adjective. And from there, he took inspiration and composed the work.

The first movement, Introduction: “Flame (Brassy)” was a lively brass quintet. The festival requested that a portion of the piece be written in a way that it could be performed without the full orchestra. The majority of this movement was like a parade march, announcing the start of the bloom. It gave way to a flooding of wind chimes and woodwinds, echoing the brassy fanfare, as if listening to the festivities from a distance, or high on a mountain top. The second movement, Fugue: “Formosa (Joyful)” took a lovely musical phrase, beginning in the woodwinds, with the oboe and moved around the orchestra, spreading like the pollination that moves azaleas around Wilmington. Errante clarified for any musicologists in the audience, that if one wondered why he chose a fugue to represent the Formosa variety, “because I felt like it.”

The third movement tackled two similar varieties, Aria and Dance: “Kurume (Lyrical) and Coastal (Delicate).” It was simple, played by the orchestra with a warm, full feeling. Interlude: “Satsuki (Restrained)” was soft and sweet. While most azalea flowers are a single color – pink, red, or white – the Satsuki variety is white with a hint of red emanating from the center. This movement mirrored the touch of color without letting the enthusiasm reach the outermost layer.

Finally, the piece concluded with the Finale: “The Azalea Garden (Brilliant)” which rippled with the themes of all the previous movements. Breathtaking and resplendent, it begs for subsequent listens so that one might more profitably recognize the reemerging melodies, and fully appreciate the musical garden that Errante has created.

It was an honor to be present at the premiere of a piece so uniquely crafted to fit the local environment. The evening felt like the perfect intersection of art and nature, and that feeling of communion wafted through the halls of the Wilson Center. The Wilmington Symphony Orchestra has the best of what local symphony orchestras have to offer – they benefit the community, not only by providing professional and consistent musical escapades, but by supporting and interacting with other organizations in the local community. Now is the time to look into season tickets for the 2022-2023 season which promises to be just as, if not more magical than this commemorative 50th anniversary season has been.