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Serenity concert review: Exactly what we needed

My friends had been itching to get out of the house, to do something – anything – other than sit in quarantine in front of their televisions. The Covid lifestyle has taken its toll is so many ways, including the impact on our cultural lives and on the music that defines us.

So when TFO announced its Serenity program, I jumped at the chance to invite a few friends along. This wasn’t just another Masterworks concert, but an aural balm, and a chance to reflect, to be inspired, to regain something we’ve dearly missed.

Music Director Michael Francis led the mostly string ensemble at Mahaffey Theater for three performances last weekend, introducing the pieces and why he chose them. He opened with Across the Calm Waters of Heaven: A Piece for Peace, by the California-born composer Ahmed Alabaca, who watched Saturday night’s program via live stream.

Alabaca wrote the 11-minute work as an emotional journey that explores the nature of loss, grief and love following the tragedy of the numerous mass shootings across America in recent years. Although the imagery in our minds is grim, this music was full of hope. A lush body of strings slowly propelled the primary theme forward before a solo piano line emerged, its plaintive melody suggesting a “calm lake’’ of reflection for those who have lost their lives.

Tomaso Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto No. 2 in D Minor followed, with soloist Mitchell Kuhn, who crafted the slow section with grace and elegance around an alert, transparent-sounding orchestra. Francis continued with Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, featured in Martin Scorsese’s movie Shutter Island a decade ago. At only six minutes, this gripping, melancholy work unfolded like a lament, the lower strings pulsating under the flutter of a solo violin, then a second fiddle. The music moved in waves, washing over us, ending abruptly as Francis froze his baton for a long moment of silence.

The evening’s highlight was Ralph Vaughan William’s Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, written for double string orchestra and based on a hymn by the eponymous Renaissance organist and composer. The lush, resonant themes echoed through Mahaffey like it must have in the cathedrals of England since its first performance in Gloucester in 1910.

The single most popular work on the program was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, originally conceived as the slow movement for his lone String Quartet of 1936. I’ve heard this music a hundred times and a good performance such as this makes it sound as fresh and gripping as my first encounter back in the 1970s on LP (now full of pops and scratches). Unfolding in a soaring arc in B-flat minor, the music was full of breathtaking suspensions, and Frances urged on his band as the crescendo peaked, let out a last sigh, and died into quiet.

Then came the luminous encore: Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Part, a duet performed with delicate grace by Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer on violin and Principal Harp Anna Kate Mackle. One final shimmer on the dark stage.

This was the serenity we had all come to hear – and feel.

Experience this special concert on demand, available for free by clicking here.

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