The Symphony’s first concert of the 2023-24 season, performed on Oct. 21, was a fabulous success on multiple fronts. There was the orchestra and the music, of course, but the event also served as the occasion to greet Ohio Wesleyan University’s new president, Matt P. vandenBerg, and his family to the community as well as to celebrate the 45-year-long partnership with the university and highlight the strong town-gown relationship that has existed for over 180 years.

Even before the concert proper began, there were several preconcert student performances that took place while the audience was entering Gray Chapel. Among the OWU soloists were Hannah Barenthin (clarinet), Logan Page (trumpet) and Aubrey Gerhardt (clarinet). A group of 15 students then sang the prologue from Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” All were accompanied by unflappable OWU pianist Mariko Kaneda and received warm applause.

Once everyone was seated, there were several short speeches. The evening’s emcee, Tom Bosco of WSYX-WTTE (ABC 6 and Fox 28), and Don Gliebe, president of the Board of Trustees, welcomed Matt vandenBerg, looked back at the orchestra’s history, and provided a glimpse of the upcoming concerts of the current season. Two proclamations were read that welcomed OWU’s 17th president – one from the City of Delaware (read by Mayor Carolyn Riggle) and one from Delaware County. In addition, Destination Delaware presented him with a gift basket. Matt vandenBerg then profusely thanked everyone for the warm welcome he and his family received in Delaware. He highlighted the transformative effect of OWU on students and the local community and pledged to devote his energy to making the university and the community an even better place in the future. Finally, a new orchestral version of OWU’s “Alma Mater” song was performed, commissioned by the Symphony and sung by OWU student Noelle Weaver.

After the customary “Star-Spangled Banner” that is played at the start of each new season, the actual concert commenced. First on the program was the “Cold Mountain Suite” by contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962).

The suite, co-commissioned by the Symphony, is based on Higdon’s eponymous opera, which in turn is inspired by Charles Frazier’s 1997 historical novel, “Cold Mountain.” The plot involves a wounded soldier who deserts the Confederate army after four years of war and returns home to his beloved.

For the suite, the composer picked various arias, duets, and quintets and rearranged them, not necessarily in story order, to create a dynamic and engaging orchestral work. It begins with a fiery opening at a furious pace, but messy scenes of war and storms eventually give way to quiet, warm, and tender moments and memories. But the soldier cannot dwell on those for too long. He is determined to continue his odyssey and reach his destination despite all kinds of arduous trials and tribulations. For one thing, his life is in mortal danger as he is hunted by the ruthless Confederate Home Guard that captures and kills deserters like him.

The various sections of the work, played without pauses, show great tonal and rhythmic variety. Many are as rugged and rough as the mountains the protagonist traverses and thus challenging to perform, but under the steady baton of Maestro Jaime Morales-Matos the Symphony once again proved its mettle.

Next on the program was the Violin Concerto op. 94 by Miguel del Aguila, born in 1957 in Montevideo (Uruguay). He now lives and works in the United States. The 2007 work was commissioned and premiered by the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and its versatile music director Guillermo Figueroa who was also this evening ‘s soloist.

According to the composer, the concerto is the musical depiction of a yearslong journey across the ocean to a new world. The first movement describes the largely peaceful, serene crossing. The violin’s melodious reveries are in perfect sync with the orchestra, which provides the watery background.

In the second movement, the stage is suddenly darkened and the violin plays off-stage. The traveler does not seem to find fulfillment and happiness in the foreign land. He feels estranged and forlorn. Only five instruments accompany him as he mourns his lonely, minimalistic fate.

Finally, in the third movement he returns to his homeland with renewed energy and determination. However, years have passed and he has become a stranger in his own land. There is now an adversarial relationship between the violin and the orchestra. Angry, disjointed, almost cacophonous scenes dominate. It is not until the very end of the fourth movement, the “Finale,” that he finds peace again, as the soothing harp heard at the beginning returns.

Guillermo Figueroa played the technically challenging concerto with accomplished technique and complete confidence. The composer, an old friend of his, was reportedly as happy with the rendition as the audience.

Concertgoers have patiently waited to hear the magnificent German-built Klais organ in Gray Chapel again. They got their wish fulfilled when after intermission the Symphony played the Symphony No. 3 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). The work, written in 1886, does not adhere to traditional symphonic forms. It has only two movements, and the use of the organ was highly unconventional.

In addition, the German symphonies of the 19th century were secular works whereas professional church organist Saint-Saëns was heavily influenced by religion such as the “Dies Irae” (“The Day of Judgment”) motif. However, none of that stopped the work from being performed frequently and becoming so popular that the organ’s theme music was even used in the 1995 family film “Babe” and its sequel.

Central Ohio organist James D. Hildreth was the distinguished soloist for the symphony, often referred to as Saint-Saëns’ Organ Concerto. He has performed nationwide and is a writer and teacher in the field of organ music. He is also a part-time instructor at Ohio Wesleyan University and thus thoroughly familiar with the organ in Gray Chapel and its 4,500 pipes. The audience was thrilled by both his and Guillermo Figueroa’s stunning mastery and was quick to reward them and the orchestra with standing ovations.

If you did not have a chance to hear the outstanding concert in person, you can listen to the live performance at and/or YouTube Music thanks to the professional videography of OWU’s Elaine L. Chun. The Symphony gratefully acknowledges support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, the City of Delaware, and Ohio Wesleyan University as well as from ticket purchasers, donors, and advertisers.

The Nov. 18 concert is not far away. It includes a new work by Michigan composer Gala Flagello (“Vitality”), the Organ Concerto by Francis Poulenc (with renowned organist Amanda Mole), and the “Symphony No. 2” by American composer Howard Hanson. Tickets are available online or at the Symphony’s new office location at 20 W. Central Ave.

A new venture this season is a gift shop. “Merch” items include T-Shirts, teddy bears, holiday ornaments, drinking glasses, and other tchotchkes. They too are available at the Symphony’s office.

Local resident Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., taught foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University for over 30 years. He is now retired. Wolber has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email address is [email protected].