Reading Symphony Orchestra Holds First In-Person Concert in Over a Year

It has been 448 days since I last sat in one of the plush, wine-red chairs at the Santander Performing Arts Center. The theater’s Moorish opulence shines even brighter after such a prolonged absence.

On Saturday, April 17, the Reading Symphony Orchestra had its first concert in front of an in-person audience since March 2020.

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The auditorium was at 15 percent capacity, masks and social distancing were required and there were temperature checks at the door. Even so, Saturday’s concert was a promising step back to normal. 

The highlight of the evening was Beethoven’s darkly vibrant Piano Concerto No. 4, with special guest pianist Stewart Goodyear.

Beethoven wrote the concerto when he was almost deaf, and when it came time to conduct a performance, he was completely deaf. The disastrous performance that ensued resulted in the Concerto being buried until its resurgence years after his death. 2020 marked the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, and orchestras around the world were planning tributes. 2020 had other plans. 

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The sound of a piano has always reminded me of raindrops, but in Goodyear’s hands, they became a thunderstorm. It was as though the instrument was sending jolts of electricity through his body. Seeing him hunched over the piano, performing with voltaic theory with every motion, recalled the mad genius exemplified by Beethoven himself. 

Sitting in the dark with strangers, being able to experience live music with no distractions, made me realize how much I missed the in-person concert experience. I even missed it when cell phones would ring during a performance, something that happened during the first piece of the night, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The Adagio for Strings is iconic, so iconic that I first heard it in an album called “50 Essential Pieces of Classical Music.” It was played in memory of John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. Days after the 9/11 attacks, the BBC Orchestra added it to their annual Proms concert series at the last minute.

“When Americans need to express their grief,” the concert program intones, “they turn to the Adagio for Strings.”

After a global pandemic that has killed over 566,000 Americans, and over 3 million around the world, no piece was more appropriate for opening the in-person season.

The pandemic forced the Orchestra to go online for over a year, a massive blow to culture in Berks County, but that is only the beginning of what the pandemic wrought on lives and livelihoods. Barber’s lush, resonant Adagio was a somber reminder, conducted with solemn grace by Music Director Andrew Constantine.

The second piece performed Saturday highlights the RSO’s commendable practice of highlighting modern, lesser-known works by composers who aren’t household names. Joan Tower’s Chamber Dance is a pensieve, emotionally lurid work that tests the mettle of the orchestra by creatively exploiting all of what each instrument is capable of. The RSO was up to the challenge with its brilliant realization of the piece. Chamber Dance is a cinematic piece, telling a story with a distinct beginning, middle and end encompassing emotional peaks and valleys. It is an elevation of the type of music that played when Tom and Jerry would chase each other, but in this version, Tom and Jerry are secretly in love with each other. It was an energetic work and a warm welcome back for the live audience.

The fact that the audience was here at all already made Saturday’s concert extraordinary, but the RSO refused to coast on this. Saturday was a reminder of why we missed these in-person concerts so much.

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Wes Cipolla
Wes Cipolla
I cover local news, culture, and business in Berks County.
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