Blogging Along the Brandywine: A very personal experience with Mendelssohn

Sunlight highlights the Kennett Symphony Orchestra playing in the round at the Mendenhall Inn. Photo Credit Jennifer French

Orchestral music wasn’t meant to be played in giant concert halls.We weren’t meant to see it from a distance of 200 feet from the last balcony, peering at tiny musicians through opera glasses and hearing amplified music through giant speakers. Just as one views a sculpting or a fine oil painting in a museum, music is personal, it is intimate. It is meant to be experienced close up.

This is just the effect Michael Hall, Music Director of the Kennett Symphony Orchestra hoped to achieve Saturday afternoon April 1, in the majestic Grand Ballroom of the Mendenhall Inn.  He achieved it brilliantly!

Executive Director and flutist Monica Buffington commented they wanted to, “break down the barriers between the orchestra and the audience.” Michael Hall, currently in his third season as Musical Director of the orchestra, has brought new vision and direction to the Kennett Symphony Orchestra by re-thinking the traditional format of a concert.

Audience in seats facing the conductor can see the sheet music being read by the musicians. Photo Credit Jennifer French

Guests were treated to Mimosas and hors d’oeuvres in the ballroom atrium prior to the concert. Inside the orchestra was set in the middle of the ballroom, with the audience seated around it.   Whether you wanted to take a traditional position in back of the conductor or face the conductor and be one with the violins, the tympani, the French horns or the bass violins, the seating choice was yours!

The only composition of the afternoon was Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, The Italian Symphony, written in 1833 after his 10-month trip to Italy. Before each movement, Hall had the various sections of the orchestra demonstrate the main themes.

Many in the audience immediately recognized the stirring Allegro Vivace movement as the theme from the soundtrack of the 1979 film Breaking Away. Contrary to the accepted tradition of not applauding between movements of a symphony, guests were encouraged to get up between movements and move to a new seat to view the orchestra from a different perspective. At one point a member of the audience was seen taking the ballroom’s grand staircase to experience the orchestra from the top.

The barriers between orchestra and audience were indeed broken down as it felt as if the orchestra had been hired for a very

Orchestra members mingled with the audience before and after the performance. Ann Fontanella plays the violin. Photo Credit Jennifer French

posh private party, albeit in a very large living room.

One of the unexpected surprises of the afternoon was the phenomenal quality of the acoustics of the Grand Ballroom. The study of acoustics is a complex science. Many a major concert hall has been made to exacting mathematical specification only to have disastrous and un-wanted dead and bright zones.

The Sydney Opera Hall in Australia, London’s Royal Festival Hall, and New York’s Lincoln Center are just a few noted concert halls famous for their acoustical problems. But the owner of the Mendenhall Inn once commented many years ago, she designed the beautiful stepped ceiling of the Grand Ballroom after her parent’s residence in Greece.It is well-known that the ancient Greeks who built the Theater at Epidaurus in the fourth century B.C. created a theater where someone is the last row could hear a whisper on stage.

After the concert, a visibly pleased Hall commented that the acoustics were “very visceral” and noted the crevices in the ceiling.

The sold-out concert was by all accounts, a resounding success. Hopefully the Kennett Symphony Orchestra will return to this great venue for many years to come.




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About Sally Denk Hoey

Sally Denk Hoey, is a Gemini - one part music and one part history. She holds a masters degree cum laude from the School of Music at West Chester University. She taught 14 years in both public and private school. Her CD "Bard of the Brandywine" was critically received during her almost 30 years as a folk singer. She currently cantors masses at St Agnes Church in West Chester where she also performs with the select Motet Choir. A recognized historian, Sally serves as a judge-captain for the south-east Pennsylvania regionals of the National History Day Competition. She has served as president of the Brandywine Battlefield Park Associates as well as the Sanderson Museum in Chadds Ford where she now curates the violin collection. Sally re-enacted with the 43rd Regiment of Foot and the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment for 19 years where she interpreted the role of a campfollower at encampments in Valley Forge, Williamsburg, Va., Monmouth, N.J. and Lexington and Concord, Mass. Sally is married to her college classmate, Thomas Hoey, otherwise known as "Mr. Sousa.”



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