If the Chesapeake Bay had ears, they'd have been burning Saturday evening.
The Chesapeake Youth Symphony, under the direction of Karen Lynne Deal, saluted Maryland's greatest natural resource with the premiere of Thomas Benjamin's "Chesapeake Suite."
Benjamin, a professor of theory and composition at the Peabody Conservatory, set to music a series of poetic texts submitted by young writers from the Annapolis area and the Eastern Shore. The result is a lovely sequence of 12 narrations, choral movements, soprano arias and instrumental interludes that celebrate the bay's impact on the lives and imaginations of Marylanders.
Joining the orchestra were the Maryland Children's Singers, under the direction of Doreen Falby, soprano Carolene Winter and narrator Rod Daniels of WBAL-TV. But despite the "cast of thousands" format, "Chesapeake Suite's" maiden voyage was a confident, smoothly integrated traversal of some fairly turbulent musical waters.
Although Thomas Benjamin obviously has younger performers in mind, he certainly did not "compose down" to them.
For the orchestral winds, "Chesapeake Suite" contains many sustained phrases that must be negotiated with beautiful sound and impeccable breath control. There are many tricky rhythms (the cello melody in the "Waterman's Reel," for example) as well as some tongue-twisting lyrics for the singers ("We use you for shelter, for food, and for play").
Benjamin's setting of Jesi Cozzens' "I Love the Bay" even calls for high D's -- pianissimo, yet -- from the soprano.
In no sense, then, is this a "kiddie" piece. It is lovely, serious, worthwhile music that requires artistry aplenty.
Saturday, everything went exceptionally well. Deal secured beautiful tone from her woodwinds and strings. The younger kids sang with accuracy and spirit, though one wonders if "Chesapeake Suite" wouldn't have sounded heftier had a select chorus of area high-schoolers been brought in for the occasion.
Daniels proved a pleasant enough narrator and Winters' lyric soprano was put to lovely use in Elise Houck's touching poem, "Serenity," and in the aforementioned "I Love The Bay."
The only down side to "Chesapeake Suite" is that it monopolized so much of the orchestra's preparation time that Beethoven suffered as a result. The orchestra was not nearly as well prepared for Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony as it had been for, say, Schubert's "Unfinished," which was offered so credibly last January.
Mind you, I did not expect a note-perfect account of one of the canon's most virtuosic works, but there was a fair amount of time spent walking on eggshells, which made for some anxiety in the hall. Handel's "Water Music" ran into some rocky shoals as well.
Appropriately, it was left to the Chesapeake to move one and all to a calmer musical place.