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WFU's Brendle Recital Hall may have been far from full on May 12, but those who were there for the Carolina Chamber Symphony's season finale were avid listeners. A large proportion of the audience was made up of students, and the local Salvation Army made it possible for some school-age children to attend. Many of the musicians that make up the CCS are principals or assistant principals of the Greensboro Symphony or the Winston-Salem Symphony. Guest conductor David Wiley selected an audacious program that would have been challenging for an established music director with a long working relationship with his players, much less a visitor who had to meld performances from only three rehearsals. All but one of the programmed pieces are normally played by full-sized orchestras.
Greensboro-based composer Russell Peck is building a sizeable list of successful compositions that have been taken up by many orchestras. Signs of Life II is a work that immediately appeals to music lovers who value tonal music scored with a deft wit. Written in 1983 during a dark period for the composer, the original two-movement piece marked a turning point in his career, bringing him badly needed exposure that opened many commissioning opportunities. A short opening allegro was composed in 1995, and the full three-movement work was premiered by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra in 1996. Early on there is a lovely tune taken up by the violas and then the cellos. The scoring has many complex rhythmic patterns – sometimes it is a little jazzy – and there are fleeting moments that give hints of country fiddling. The slow movement, marked "arioso," features an extended slow melody with interesting harmonics. Concertmaster Corine Brouwer phrased this with a perfect sense of line and precise intonation. This lush movement is followed by jazzy scherzo that abounds in exotic string techniques. One of them involves the tapping-out of notes on the fingerboard, which sounds a little like pizzicato, so the composer has called it "peckzzicato."
It was not so many years ago that there were only two commercial recordings of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, Op. 14, and it was rarely heard in local concert halls. It was commissioned by Samuel Fels, a member of the Curtis Institute of Music's board of trustees, for Iso Briselli, a child prodigy and student of Carl Flesch. There is a tangled web surrounding the commission. Barber took an advance on the commission and traveled to Switzerland, where he composed the first two movements. He then moved to Paris but soon had to return to the USA because of the Nazi threat. After previewing the finished sections – according to The Good Music Guide – Briselli "complained that they were too full of Barber's characteristic lyricism." He demanded technical fireworks to show off his virtuosity, but when he saw the bravura ending, with its four minutes of non-stop brilliance, he pronounced it unplayable, whereupon Fels asked for his money back. Another Curtis violinist, Herbert Braumel, after a few hours of study, was able to play it for the school's founder, Mrs. Curtis Bok, its director, Josef Hofmann, and composer Gian Carlo Menotti. A deal was struck, Barber kept the advance, and Fels and Briselli relinquished all performance rights. Braumel performed it with the Curtis Institute Orchestra under Fritz Reiner in 1939, and the official premiere took place on February 7, 1941, with Albert Spaulding and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.
In Winston-Salem, Wiley kept the dynamics of the Carolina Chamber Symphony carefully gauged so as never to cover his fine soloist, Andy Simionescu, whose 1983 Sergio Peresson violin produced a sweet tone as he gently wove the delicate, lyric tapestry of the first two movements. Cara Fish played the extended oboe solo that opens the second movement with breath-taking beauty and, with Simionescu, flawlessly spun out Barber's unique and understated but bittersweet longing. That no moss grew on the latter's bow arm was clear as he seamlessly raced through the showpiece's finale.
Inner-voice clarity, extremes of dynamics, and inexorable rhythms were at the heart of Wiley's interpretation of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, in A, Op. 92. Along with Dvorák's Ninth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Fifth, this work seems virtually inescapable in our region. Many conductors fail to project an over-all view of the work and get so carried away with the Presto third movement that the finale comes across as an anticlimax. Wiley is not among these. Clearly influenced – sometimes perhaps too influenced – by the early music movement, he directed a fast-paced version that surged forward unceasingly. The horn section, led by Fred Bergstone, blazed with brilliance any number of times but especially in the latter half of the first movement. Unlike most performances, Wiley's moved seamlessly from one movement to the next with hardly a pause. The second movement, Allegretto, received the fastest live performance I can recall. The dynamic range was very wide, too: when the conductor secured "ppp," the orchestra barely whispered, so there was great contrast with full forte. While some tempos might have been questioned, it was certainly an exciting and thought-provoking performance, augmented by an extra violin – without ostentation, Simionescu slipped into a back-stand chair to add to the weight of the string sound.