- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

What could be more fun than climbing in the family car at the end of a long workweek and heading off for a concert under the stars on the banks of the St. Mary’s river in tranquil, rural Maryland? That’s what a few thousand people have been doing since the River Concert Series began five years ago. A kind of mini-Wolf Trap on the campus of St. Mary’s College, the concerts take place under a billowing white tent that looks like a swooping pair of angel wings as conceived by Eero Saarinen.

The summer 2003 concert season opened at the college last Saturday and featured an appearance by the sprightly Ahn Trio, three charming sisters who can easily leap from classical to fusion. They were backed up by the Chesapeake Orchestra, a professional troupe seasoned with a heavy contingent of willing refugees from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and other area ensembles, all led by maestro Jeffrey Silberschlag, music director director for the orchestra and the series, who also serves on the faculty of the college.

From its outset, the series has always aimed for a crossover audience of classical music lovers open to other things as well as pop music fans looking for more creative depth, Mr. Silberschlag says.

“Programming is the key to the whole festival,” he says. “We program major works, new and experimental works, music of all genres. Risk-taking people often come to hear the popular music and do find they like the classical.”

Mr. Silberschlag, who has recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, arrived at the tiny college in 1988 to serve as director of orchestral studies, becoming chairman of the music department in 1997. He worked, with the college’s support, to establish the concert series because he felt that the area was culturally underserved.

“There are 240,000 people in the three southern counties here, and the only difference between these people and the Washington-area concertgoers is distance,” he says. “These people are starving for music.”

He regards the locals as far more sophisticated than D.C. dwellers are likely to give them credit for. “We’re not Southern Maryland,” he says, “but the south of Maryland’s ‘Cote de Crab.’”

The series started out small and grew in popularity and scope, in no small measure due to Mr. Silberschlag’s puckish personality. He tries to work the audience with a down-home humorous touch and avoids lecturing on music.

“Nobody has to tell anybody why they like chocolate, or sex, or other pleasures,” he says. “Music is the same way. If it takes a half-hour to prep people, then the music probably isn’t that much fun.”

The local business community soon became active sponsors of the series, quickly perceiving that a strong cultural program would be a major attraction to new businesses, customers and employees alike.

“Businesses tell me they lead their presentations to prospective employees with information about the series,” Mr. Silberschlag says.

He in turn is happy to help local businesses boost their products. He has done local car commercials dressed as James Bond, and appeared in another commercial where he donned a wet suit with a tuxedo jacket and conducted under water. “People have never seen a conductor under water, and it’s the perfect way to advertise the river festival,” he says.

Denise Krumenacker of the college’s office of public and media relations has been justly proud of the concert series’ arc of success. It typically draws up to 5,000 people for each event, rain or shine. “We’ve never had to cancel an event,” says Ms. Krumenacker. But neither she nor Mr. Silberschlag can work miracles if Mother Nature refuses to cooperate.

Last Saturday became increasingly ominous as curtain time approached. Breaking off from the Capital Beltway onto the increasingly rural and picturesque Maryland Route 5, Washington-area concertgoers en route to St. Mary’s County could not help but become discouraged as the skies opened up into a deluge of biblical proportions. Things got worse by the minute, as increasing numbers of cars pulled off to the side to await a break in a downpour that would have given Noah pause. But breaks were rarely forthcoming, and a fantasy-impromptu of raging rivulets coursed through road construction areas making them nearly impassable.

Nonetheless, a small crowd estimated at 1,500 was camped out at the college, and festivities began nearly on time with a short, lively welcoming speech by college President Jane Margaret O’Brien. Clad in a clingy summery dress and wearing rain-friendly mules — distinguished by their huge, orange-pink, retina-burning plastic flowers — Ms. O’Brien congratulated the audience for braving the elements to make the trek to “this, the cultural center of the world.”

The rain seemed in a mood to hold off, so concertgoers opened up their picnics (the series permits the consumption of adult beverages, as well) or grazed at the many upscale food concessions that ringed the concert area as they awaited the first downbeat.

Given the still-threatening elements, Mr. Silberschlag chose to reverse the order of the concert and open with the Ahn Trio, which premiered young composer Kenji Bunch’s “Triple Concerto,” specifically written for the trio and accompanied by the Chesapeake Orchestra.

The Ahns, three Korean-born thirtysomething sisters, are yet another Gen X fusion ensemble, the kind of young musicians who are succeeding in bringing younger listeners back to classical music by jazzing up the repertoire. Impossibly trim, attractive and hip, the Ahns, now based in New York City, dress like elegant rockers and aren’t afraid to show off plenty of skin and bare midriff.

But the Ahns — twins Maria (cello) and Lucia (piano-keyboards) and younger sister Angella (violin) — are serious classical musicians possessed of a prodigious technique. And technique was what they needed to pull off Mr. Bunch’s new work, a fusion piece that combined post-punk, minimalism and good old-fashioned lush romanticism into an appealing, if loud, 21st century work with enough percussive drive to attract younger listeners and enough substance and complexity to interest the boomers. It was a boffo performance, concluding with a bang as the skies opened up yet again.

Trying to appease the elements, the Ahns joined with the orchestra in a bravely spirited reading of “Riders in the Storm.” But with the deluge threatening to swamp the tent and ruin the instruments, and with thunder and lightning threatening crowd safety, the elements proved unyielding. For the first time in the history of the series, the remainder of the concert, including Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which would have been unbearably cool with its stormy drama played out against nature’s violent backdrop, was canceled.

Wet, bedraggled, but only moderately disappointed, many in the audience vowed to return for the next concert. The concert series is clearly the hottest ticket this summer on the Cote de Crab. And your ticket is free.

Frances Ponick also contributed to this story.

***

WHAT: River Concert Series 2003

WHERE: St. Mary’s College of Maryland at historic St. Mary’s City, Md. Complete driving directions from various locales: http://www.smcm.edu/ rcs/directions.cfm

WHEN: Concerts are Friday evenings at 7:30 for the next five weeks. June 27: Ballet and light show featuring Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy” and Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

July 4: Music and fireworks, featuring pianist Brian Ganz in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

July 11: Jeffrey Silberschlag, trumpet, in Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto; also ]Haydn’s Symphony Number 104 (“London”).

July 18: “Mozart to Motown”

July 25: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

TICKETS: Free.

INFO: http://www.smcm.edu/ rcs/schedule.cfm

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