Paul Merluzzi

Paul Merluzzi

Following in the footsteps of John Philip Sousa and other friends of Pierre S. du Pont, the Kennett Symphony looks forward to our annual concert at the Open Air Theater at Longwood Gardens, one of the finest botanical gardens in the world.

I also fret when we perform there because any musical ensemble, especially a symphonic orchestra with its blending of sounds, loses much of its sonority to, ironically, the open air. More about this later.

The Kennett Symphony’s concert this past Saturday was titled “Symphony Under the Stars: America the Beautiful” because Music Director Michael Hall programmed a completely American theme. The delightful selections included works by 20th century American composers John Williams, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Peter Boyer, and George Gershwin who were among the first composers to create a distinct American sound and flavor – blending jazz, ragtime, and folk into classical pieces that were light, bright and totally suited for the outdoor concert.

I attended the rehearsal on Friday evening, the dress rehearsal on Saturday as well as the concert itself. While it may not be proper for me to be a full-fledged critic of the performance because of my position with the orchestra, I will say that I was very pleased with the progress through the rehearsals culminating in a concert that was enjoyed by all 900 attendees as evidenced by the standing ovation at the conclusion.

Thomas Nickell, who is exclusively represented by Alexander & Buono International, is a talented young (20 years old) pianist who performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and was rewarded by a standing ovation. Thomas is also a composer who has been globe-hopping throughout Europe and the USA with public performances of the important piano repertoire as well as his own compositions.

Thomas began his professional career at age 13 and had his Carnegie Hall debut last year. He is fond of American music – a good fit for Saturday’s concert. There are many years ahead to fine-tune Mr. Nickell’s considerable gifts and I look forward to following the further development and career of this talented young artist.

Kenneth Naito, who performed the first movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, is a former winner of the Kennett Symphony Instrumental Competition and I vividly remember his playing of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Kenneth was the last contestant and when he completed his audition, I knew the judges would select him despite the many talented musicians in the competition.

He now attends The Juilliard School and has ambitions to study conducting as well as refining his violin playing. He derives his musical talent from his mother, who was likely good enough to pursue a career in music, but chose medical school instead.

Kenneth attended The Juilliard School Pre-College Division and was the concertmaster for the school orchestra in 2018, under the direction of guest conductor Robert Spano (Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony). Kenneth made his concerto debut with the Kostroma Symphony Orchestra in Russia at the age of eleven.

The rest of the program which included the favorites “The Cowboys Overture” by John Williams, “Rodeo” by Aaron Copland, and “Overture to Candide” by Leonard Bernstein was highlighted for me by Peter Boyer’s “Rolling River – Sketches on Shenandoah” which was commissioned by the Cincinnati Pops and premiered on July 4, 2014. Boyer uses the “richness and colors of the symphony orchestra to surround and highlight” the familiar tune. It was so sweeping and moving – I loved it.

On the negative side, I was extremely disappointed with the sound system. I have never had so many comments about the sound and the specific criticism was dependent on the seating location. After my curtain speech I sat in various places, as I usually do, to sample the acoustics. In all locations where I sat, the orchestra was at very low volume and had a somewhat “tinny” sound. It was difficult to hear the violin soloist and, at times, the piano soloist. This was confirmed by friends and colleagues in attendance.

Those who sat close to the stage had no problems, but others echoed my complaints. Some who sat house right said the piano, which was mic’d, was much too loud but the violin soloist was fine. So, the problem was the marked unevenness of the sound – certainly not the high standard we’ve come to expect from Longwood Gardens. There was another problem that, to me, was more serious.

The sound from the Victory Brewing Beer Garden near the restaurants carried over to the Open Air Theater and was annoying throughout the concert.

One of my friends who complained about that annoyance said it was loud enough at times that he could identify the songs they were playing.

After the concert, several of us gathered at the Mendenhall Inn cocktail lounge, including the Nickell and Naito families, for an ‘after-party’ that provided a serendipitous ending to the weekend. In 2011, Thomas Nickell and his parents were at the Sulzbach-Rosenberg International Music Festival in Germany.

As they were descending a flight of stairs from the balcony after the performance, Mrs. Nickell missed a step, fell, and broke her ankle. Mr. Nickell was struggling to get her down the stairs when a good Samaritan came by and helped get Mrs. Nickell down from the balcony and to a hospital. That good Samaritan’s name was Neal Naito, Kenneth Naito’s father, whose family was also attending the Festival. That was the first and only times the Nickell and Naito families met until this past weekend.

It was such a coincidence and I am amazed that they made the connection. It is further proof of my theory that we are all living a Twilight Zone episode.

Merluzzi is president, Board of Directors, The Kennett Symphony of Chester County.
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