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A double treat of creative and imaginative programming by Peter Perret, Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony (http://www.wssymphony.org/), proved irresistible, so on the afternoon of February 10, I caught the second of three performances of an unusual menu from an ideal balcony seat in the Stevens Center for the Performing Arts, a venue that impresses me more every time I pay a visit. Instead of the old rut of programming an overture, a concerto and a symphony, Perret arrayed a smorgasbord of five widely-contrasted orchestrations--three older works and two by living composers, both of whom were present. The older of the two new works was sandwiched between two lush Romantic pieces in the first half. The newest work ended the concert following a spectacular Russian Romantic showpiece.
The opening work was one of the great guilty pleasures in this era of the "original instruments" movement, Stokowski's shameless orchestration of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, S.565. The music has always been popular in this form or its original organ version as music in horror films. All sections of the orchestra played very well. Like most orchestras in the region, the WSSO is not string rich, but Perret maintained good balances and the great washes of sound as Stokowski treated the sections as so many pipes in a great organ were a joy.
The first half ended with a stirring performance of Liszt's third symphonic poem, "Les préludes." This was once popular as music for movie serials and used to be frequently programmed, but I doubt that I have heard it over five times in the last thirty years. Again, Perret carefully built up the tension and handled the dynamics beautifully.
The centerpiece of the first half was the successful Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra (1957) by an important member of the older generation of African-American composers, George Theophilus Walker (http://www.mmbmusic.com/MMB/Composer/geo_walker.html [inactive 4/05]). Born in Washington, D.C. in 1922, he has had a career as both a composer and a pianist. While still a student at the Curtis Institute, he played Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy. Then, at the American Conservatory at Fountainebleau, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, Robert Casadesus, Clifford Curzon and Rudolf Serkin. No doubt in connection with Black History Month, several area musical organizations including the N.C. School of the Arts arranged concerts and lectures focusing on Walker's music. The program notes described the concerto as one of the 20th century's most often performed works for trombone although Walker's remarks from the stage made it clear he feels it isn't performed enough.
The colorful three-movement concerto served as a vehicle to introduce the orchestra's new principal trombone, Brian French, who showed complete mastery of his brazen instrument. The first and last movements are fast while the middle movement, Grave, is slow and lyrical. The intricate first movement has a rapid alternation of two principal themes with a third that appears midway through. It opens with pizzicato strings quickly joined in turn by xylophones, marimbas and brass. The trombone enters with a forlorn melody played slowly and echoed by a choir of three horns. There is much call and response between the soloist and the sections, often playing faster in episodes of driven rhythms. For the soloist, there is a fine cadenza, centered on low and mournful trombone notes with the flavor of the blues. All the other movements are full of interesting and skillful writing for both the soloist and other members and sections of the orchestra. Other music directors ought to take up this score. Walker, warmly received by the audience, said that this was the best live performance of the concerto that he had heard and mentioned that it has been recorded twice. Walker's music is much more abstract and eclectic than that of many African-American composers such as T.J. Anderson, William Grant Still, William Levi Dawson or David Baker, all of whom draw more overtly from minority cultures.
The sounds of sonorous Russian Orthodox Church ritual filled the Stevens Center after intermission with an evocative reading of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Festival" Overture. Quiet woodwinds intoned over pizzicato strings and there were impressive episodes as horn and trombone choirs "chanted." Fine extended solos were given by Concertmistress Corine Brouwer and Principal Cellist Robert Marsh. At one point, French intoned the role of the priest in the musical "mass."
The seemingly unlikely Concerto for Timpani by Greensboro-based composer Russell Peck (http://www.russellPeck.com) ended the program. Composition of the "Harmonic Rhythm--Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra" was supported by a consortium of forty American orchestras, said to be the largest in history. In comments from the stage before it was played, Peck pointed out the big challenge: a set of timpani has five notes, barren ground for a melody, although by using the pedals, this can be expanded to ten. Further variety came from a wide selection of mallets and drumsticks as well as the use of bare hands and fingers. The agile soloist was Sherwood Mobley, since 1991 the Principal Timpanist of the Greenville (S.C.) Symphony, who has been playing this work throughout the South. From "ppp" notes, more seen than heard, the timpani built quickly to a crescendo. The strings provided melodic contrast. At various points the whole of the percussion section (except for the regular timpanist) was deployed.
According to the program notes, "the title refers to the rhythm and pace of chord changes in music, ... called harmonic rhythm. While usually a secondary element, in this piece it takes pride of place, as the timpani is naturally ideal for accenting harmonic rhythm in the orchestra." Memorable was an extended timpani cadenza set against pizzicato strings as well as Mobley's fleet movements during seemingly impossible fast parts of the one-movement work.
Perret gave brief informative comments from the podium before each work was played and referred to the extensive and very-well written program notes by David B. Levy, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Music at Wake Forest University.
The Winston-Salem audience was the most diverse that I have seen at area concerts. A number of young people were present, some due to a program that allows patrons to donate tickets to be given free to youngsters. Perhaps the presence of both a composer and a timpani soloist of African-American origin helped bring out the largest contingent from that community that I have ever seen at a classical concert. The Greensboro and Winston-Salem orchestras seem to be much more successful is attracting diverse audiences than our Triangle musical institutions.