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Winston-Salem Symphony a Musical Smorgasbord

by Peter Perret

November 22, 2009, Winston Salem, NC:  Now that the Thanksgiving feast has come and gone, I think back to the Winston-Salem Symphony's latest concert and reflect that it was served as a three-course meal of widely different fare. The menu consisted of Russell Peck's "Peace" Overture, the moving "Schicksalslied," Op. 54, by Johannes Brahms, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem in the second half of the program.

The best of the concert was the rich and burnished tone of the combined choruses, the Cantata Singers from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and the more mature voices of the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale. And the symphony orchestra itself continues its trajectory of excellence, meeting and exceeding any and all expectations. From the softest pianissimo at the start of the "Peace" Overture to the most raucous and rude interjections of the Webber, the orchestra, with music director Robert Moody at the helm, was clearly in control.

But as the best planned feasts "gang aft agley" (often go awry), it was difficult to feel a continuity of thought or emotion or style tying these three works together. The Peck overture ill prepared the way for the brooding Brahms work, and the erratic abbreviated nature of Webber's conception of the Requiem mass, a monument in the hands of other composers, was hollow and unmoving.

One of the most frequently played works of late composer Russell Peck, the "Peace" Overture was written in 1988 as a tribute to Anwar Sadat's attempts to create an overture for peace in Palestine. It is a solemn work with a joyful middle section incorporating the jazzy rhythms and major/minor modal scale that we associate with Peck's music. There is a hint of Dvorák in the beginning and again at the end, a flick of Salome's veil, and melancholy references to "Motherless child."  The audience responded warmly to the performance.

Fresh from the success of his Deutsches Requiem, Brahms again gives us solemn and peaceful longing in his moving "Schicksalslied" ("Song of Destiny"). Two contrasting sections compare the serene immortality of the gods with the tumultuous life of mortals. This particular performance lacked Olympian serenity and a sense of yearning in the first section and was so hasty in the second that I feared a mishap with the rapid doubling of the notes in the upper strings. But the fast tempo did accentuate the cliff-like choral cross-rhythms so typical of Brahms. Fortunately, Brahms brings back the serenity of the opening, but in a purely instrumental closing, accentuated by the slow and fateful triplet pounding of the tympani.

One admires the originality of Webber's Requiem, from the orchestration (sans violins, a trick he might have learned from Brahms!) to the conception of eternity in which the boy soprano repeats the same phrase ("perpetua") over and over, undeterred by the savage attacks of the dissonant orchestra. Warm congratulations must be offered to boy soprano soloist Zachary Covington, whose accurate intonation and plaintive clear voice added needed color and contrast to the Requiem. The same must be said for the other two soloists, soprano Natalie Fagnan and tenor Michael Ryan. Both have tremendous ranges, excellent intonation, and warm passionate voices. And the combined choruses were powerful although the sopranos were sometimes overpowered by the male voices.

There were moments when one recognized the style of the composer of such hits as Evita, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Jesus Christ Superstar in the Requiem, which is straightforward and only mildly dissonant. Compared to other such works by other composers, however, the style of composition is neither complex nor often contrapuntal, excepting the Hosanna, in which the chorus begins a typical fugue, but rapidly drops counterpoint for parallel writing. The audience gave the unfamiliar work scant applause, barely covering the performers' exit from the stage.

   
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