The friends and parents of performers in Winston-Salem's Stevens Center on May 20 could justifiably beam with pride for the high professional skills in evidence throughout the evening. On stage were the musicians of the NCSA Symphony Orchestra. The soloist was a high school sophomore and member of the orchestra who has already racked up an impressive resumé of many prizes. Music Director Serge Zehnacker kept tight reins on his youthful charges. Each string section (perhaps aside from the basses) appeared to include a member of the Greensboro SO or the Winston-Salem Symphony.
A performance of the beloved Adagio for Strings, Op. 11, by Samuel Barber, was dedicated to the memory of James H. Semans, M.D., who, along with his wife Mary, played a vital role in the creation of the NC School of the Arts. Some conductors exaggerate the piece and milk it for every ounce of pathos. Zehnancker's approach that involved the weaving of a seamless tapestry of simple serenity was much better. Less is so much more.
Perhaps the unorthodox structure of the first movement of Dvorák's Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53, was partially the cause for its slow acceptance on the concert stage. It seems to have won widespread favor only in the last decade as more and more violinists have added it to their arsenals. Stefani Collins was the first place winner in the first North Carolina Symphony-NCSA Concerto Competition in the spring of 2004. Her prize was four performances of the Dvorák Concerto with the NC Symphony, and we reviewed the last of these, on September 25, in High Point. At the time we wrote that she "brought a musical sophistication beyond her years" to the piece. As before, she produced a good, full tone, and her sound was well projected across its dynamic range. Her tonal palette was rich, and the intonation of her exposed high notes was flawless. Having some eight performances of this concerto under her belt, she has clearly become fully comfortable with it and has added more personal touches to her view of the work. The chamber-music-like dialog between the soloist and various woodwinds was delightful. Every moment of the last movement, with its use of the furiant and chances for brilliant display, was delightful. Zehnacker secured a stylish and beautifully balanced accompaniment.
Many live performances and recordings of Brahms Symphony No. 3, in F, Op. 90, have left me with an overall impression of the mood as "autumnal" – the bittersweet meditations of an old man reflecting back on the past and anticipating the nearing end. In contrast to many of those, Zehnacker's view is that there's plenty of sap in the old tree and that, while the foliage may have turned, the leaves haven't begun to fall. He brought energy and intensity to the first movement that I had heretofore associated only with the relentless surge of the composer's First Symphony. It is marked "Allegro con brio," but I have seldom heard it taken with so much "brio." With wonderful dialogs between the woodwinds, the lovely slow movement sometimes reminded me of "harmoniemusik." The third movement showed off the refined sound of the string choirs, not least the full, rich resonance and tight ensemble of the cello section. The brasses came into their own in the finale with some cultured, mellow horn playing and superb buildup of the trombones. All the movements were taken at faster-than-usual tempos. It was refreshing to hear an unusual and refreshing approach that presented a chestnut of the repertory from a different angle.