It was Saturday night at Shillington’s UCC, and the Berks Sinfonietta’s first in-person concert since February 2020 was about to begin when conductor David A McConnell announced a change in the program notes. The original theme of Saturday’s concert, “Upon Weightless Wings,” was a series of pieces celebrating new beginnings. The theme was devised in June, a more optimistic time when it seemed that the COVID-19 pandemic was coming to a close, at least in Berks.
Now, with COVID cases climbing in Berks, and McConnell addressing a newly re-masked audience, it seems like the theme of the night is not a new beginning, but more of the same. All four pieces the Berks Sinfonietta performed Saturday night were filled with fear and uncertainty, but also with great beauty, power and romance.
I love how Berks County’s orchestras are not afraid to champion works by modern and avant-garde composers, instead of just relying on the old war horses. The first piece of the night, “Upon Weightless Wings,” was written by 26-year-old British composer Grace-Evangeline Mason in 2018. Its three movements, each inspired by a work of contemporary art, suggest a thunderstorm, the smell of the wet earth in its aftermath and the sunrise the next morning, respectively. I was amazed at the power that Berks Sinfonietta wrung out of the piece, especially as it was played by a smaller ensemble.
The next piece was Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, inspired by the lonely fog-shrouded islands of the same name. The piece, too, is foggy, making adventure from what could be in the horizon beyond. After that was “Strum” by Jesse Montgomery, a string quintet that was more mellow and contemplative than the pieces that came before it – at least in the first half. The antsy second half was performed with pathos by violinists Jennifer Sternick and Nicolás Gómez Amín, violist Kathleen Bahena, cellist Lia Marie Criscuolo and bassist Frank Fraser.
The concert’s furious finale was Beethoven’s majestic Seventh Symphony, a piece with a long history of responding to national adversity. It was first performed at a benefit concert for wounded soldiers, and played during a pivotal scene in the movie “The King’s Speech.” During the first movement, I heard the gentleman sitting beside me tapping the pew to the beat. By the third movement, my toes were tapping too.