The combined forces of the two professional orchestras in the central region of North Carolina, known locally as the Piedmont Triad, raised the roofs of their respective halls on four days, creating an enthusiasm and anticipation for more joint ventures in the future.  Both the cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem have earnest, decent and competent symphony orchestras, led by celebrated and venerable musicians in many principal positions and fueled by a young and enthusiastic cadre of musicians who commute to play in both orchestras. 

The best of all these elements came together in Richard Strauss’ monumental and epic Ein Heldenleben (A Heroic Life), conducted by Maestros Robert Moody in Greensboro and Dmitry Sitkovetsky in Winston-Salem. And even though each conducted the same piece with the same orchestra, the performances were as different as the conductors. Moody’s performance in the cavernous War Memorial Auditorium was tightly controlled and precise, if somewhat prosaic; Sitkovetsky’s rendition was more emotionally charged and spontaneous, even if some entrances and passages were not quite together. Perhaps the contrast of the Apollonian and Dionysian characteristics of the Hero would be a fitting description.

The massive string section (33 violins, 15 violas, 11 cellos and 8 basses) sounded divine in both halls, especially in the very softest and incredibly rich pianissimo passages (more noticeable in Greensboro) and Strauss’ orchestration with its large preponderance of low pitched instruments (two tubas, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, 9 horns) created powerful climaxes reminiscent of a huge pipe organ.

Ein Heldenleben is divided into six sections which are played without interruption, each depicting different aspects of a heroic life. The third section, the “Hero’s Mate,” includes a long and intricate violin solo for the concertmaster. Corine Brouwer played the solo in Greensboro and John Fadial, in Winston-Salem, both with beautiful tone and technical ease. The score is very explicit in describing the various moods of the mate (often thought to be modeled after Strauss’s very talkative wife, Pauline):  “hypocritically longing, frivolous, arrogant, yearning, amiable, furious and frantic, violent, wrathful, scolding, tender, and frail.”  Here it was Fadial’s turn to play it safe, while Ms. Brouwer threw all caution to the winds and provided a stunning technical display. And although both concertmasters played the “longing and yearning” parts beautifully, neither quite dared to become as raspy and violent as the score suggests! 

Many great solos were played by the orchestra musicians during the performances, too many to enumerate, but special mention must be given to those played by Robert Campbell (horn), John Ellis (oboe), Karl Kassner and guest principal Judith Saxton (trumpets).

The first half of the concert started with five songs excerpted from the two sets of Old American Songs by Aaron Copland. Maestro Sitkovetsky accompanied baritone Robert Moody with a chamber-sized orchestra.  Moody has a pleasant voice, not operatically trained, but agreeable. He was at his most effective in the humorous last song of the set, a children’s song, “I Bought Me a Cat,” replete with mime and mimic. It was then his turn to wield the baton while his colleague played major sections of John Corigliano’s score to the film, The Red Violin.

Corigliano is one of the United States’ best-known composers and certainly one of the most played. Son of a legendary concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, he has a natural affinity for the violin. Indeed, three of the ten or eleven episodes which comprise this Suite from The Red Violin are veritable tours de force demanding speed, agility and accuracy as well as proper intonation, expression and tone! The first of these, “Coitus Musicales,” is Paganini-esque; “Pope’s Betrayal” is grotesquely punctuated by apparent gunshots; and the third, “Gypsy Cadenza,” would have pleased George Enesco or Maurice Ravel. Even though he had the music in front of him onstage, Sitkovetsky ruled! He absolutely mastered the many moods and treacheries of the piece. Special congratulations to Greensboro’s departing principal cello, Beth Vanderborgh, for her lovely solo in the “Death of Anna” segment.

The work both opened and closed using a compositional technique popular in the 1950-80s “Modernist” period: aleatory, referring to leaving some elements of composition open to chance. Each string section had a predetermined passage to play, but could play it at each individual player’s discretion – preferably not together. It was quite effective in this case, evoking uncertainty and quizzical wonder.

The success of these concerts in each city, for audiences and musicians alike, should embolden the organizers to follow up with others. Hmmm, I’ve never heard a live performance of Mahler Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand….”