Blogging Along the Brandywine: Kennett Symphony springs back to life

Last Saturday afternoon was the perfect first weekend of Spring. It was the kind of day that makes you want to run out and listen to music by the Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky.

Wait, did I hear you say “No”?

To most people Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) might bring to mind Disney’s 1940 Academy Award-winning movie Fantasia, with Stravinsky’s discordant and jagged music from his Rite of Spring, accompanying animations of exploding lava and dinosaurs mauling each other to death. It gave a lot of little kids nightmares.

In fact, when The Rite of Spring was premiered on May 29, 1913, in Paris, fights broke out among audience members while people in the streets rioted over the harshness and modernism in the music.

According to Michael Hall, director of the Kennett Symphony, Stravinsky once quipped, “My music is best understood by children and animals.”

But Saturday’s “concert and cocktails” by the Kennett Symphony Orchestra in the Grand Ballroom of the Mendenhall Inn, featured Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. Unlike The Rite of Spring, the suite was part of Stravinsky’s neo-classical style, composed with techniques that looked back to the order and form of the classical period.

Hall has re-imagined these yearly afternoon concerts by placing the orchestra in the middle of the ballroom, allowing the audience to sit around the orchestra. The doors opened half an hour before the concert with butlered hot and cold hors d’oeuvres and a signature cocktail fittingly named “The Rite of Spring.” If you arrived early enough to claim a front-row seat, your fantasy of sitting in a symphony orchestra was about to begin.

Before the concert started, we spoke with audience member Timothy Blair, retired dean of the School of Music at West Chester University. I asked him if he was excited about live music coming back again.

“If we weren’t excited, about this concert, nothing could excite us,” he said. “It’s good to see things being rebuilt. We’re back.”

The overture to the Pulcinella Suite could fool all but the most educated ear into believing they were listening to Haydn, Mozart or Pergolesi, one of Stravinsky’s favorites. Hall described it as “very tuneful, very elegant, very easy to listen to.”

And while the minuet and finale had hints of the typical Stravinsky dissonance, it was nonetheless a delightful listening experience.

The performance was enhanced by a PowerPoint program projected on large screens on both ends of the ballroom, showing action from the Pulcinella ballet as well as historic footage of Stravinsky composing at his piano.

After the well-deserved standing ovation performance, I asked Hall how he felt when the orchestra came in on his downbeat.

“Fantastic,” he replied. “I’m always impressed by how well it sounds in this ballroom.”

We also spoke with long-time violinist Martin Beech who has played with the Kennett Symphony Orchestra since 1969 when he was a student in the School of Music at West Chester University.

When asked what he thought about that afternoon’s concert he said, “Wonderful,” quickly adding, “We really missed playing live. Kennett [Symphony Orchestra] shut down completely.”

Of his own career, he said, “I’ve played more concerts in the last two months than in the last two-and-a-half years.”

The Kennett Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1940 and is the only professional orchestra in Chester County, attracting top musicians from five states.

You can learn more about this treasure at https://kennettsymphony.org

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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