With too many Triangle presenters seldom venturing out of the standard Austro-German and Russian programming ruts, Music Director Peter Perret’s imaginative all-French program with his Winston-Salem Symphony February 11 was irresistible. A larger crowd than has been usual for the Sunday matinees filled a welcome number of seats to enjoy the fine acoustics of Stevens Center. The centerpieces were built around the current American tour of the noted French pianist Pascal Rogé, who is campaigning duo-piano works featuring his brilliant protégé, Vanessa Benelli, a budding fifteen-year-old blonde Italian beauty who has studied with him since she was eleven.

The concert opened with an effervescent performance of the Symphony in C Major by the sixteen-year-old Georges Bizet. Balances between sections were fine and the important rhythms were well sprung. The rapid string articulation in the fast movements was outstanding. Nice touches were subtle, long-held notes by the horns and, later in the first movement, the apt vibrato applied by Principal Horn Fredrick Bergstone. The woodwinds were splendid throughout. In the slow movement, fine solo and ensemble work were provided by Principal Flute Kathryn Levy, Principal Oboe John Ellis, and Principal Bassoon Mark Popkin. The burnished violas imitated bagpipes in the third movement, and the finale was fleet and bubbly.

Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos proved an ideal vehicle to showcase Benelli’s secure and sophisticated technique as she played the showy first piano part while Rogé took the accompanying second piano. The fast outer movements were jazzy and the whole exuded the composer’s signature sassiness. Benelli’s execution of the brilliant entry of the first piano was ideal while Rogé brought a fine sense of style and elegance to the very different second piano part. The clear imitation of a Balinese gamelan near the end of the first movement was striking; this was again suggested, briefly, in the finale. A crystalline purity characterized the slow movement, an homage to Mozart. Perret mentioned that some of the other “borrowed tunes” quoted by Poulenc might have been heard in French alleys. Principal cellist Robert Marsh had a biting solo with the instrument in a high register and bowed near the bridge. The whole concerto was full of unusual orchestral colors and percussion effects. [Note: The Poulenc Concerto will be performed by the Janus Duo and UNCSO in April.]

Perret said that Berlioz regarded the “Love Scene” excerpt from Roméo et Juliette as his finest score and pointed out that it was very rare to find one of Berlioz’s scores without trombones. The presence of four bassoons served as a reminder of the composer’s reputation for the unusual. Perret suggested that the “voice” of Roméo in the score was the low strings while that of Juliette was the woodwinds, with passages portraying murmurings, caresses and sighs. He secured a lush rich sound from the strings; the violas in particular were outstanding. Violin articulation was superb. The statement of the famous theme by the entire cello section over sustained horns was memorable. Kathyrn Levy’s flute solo was perfect and stylish. I hope some imaginative music director in the Piedmont will seriously undertake a survey of the major Berlioz masterpieces; his Requiem would provide a welcome respite from the cycle of Brahms and Verdi requiems..

Pascal Rogé is well known for his famous recordings of both Ravel piano concertos with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He brought all that mastery and virtuosity to his interpretation of the Piano Concerto in G in Winston-Salem. I can’t imagine the part better played, and Perret and the orchestra provided a colorful and stylish accompaniment that fit like a glove. Most section principals had notable solos. A sassy duet between clarinetist James Kalyn and trombonist Brian French was memorable in the third movement. Trumpeter Anita Cirba and harpist Helen Rifas had significant solo roles. With a fitting regard to French performance tradition, the horns flavored their parts with a touch of vibrato. Rogé’s eloquent statement of Ravel’s wonderful melody in the slow movement was breath taking. Among the supporting roles was a lovely duet between oboist John Ellis and bassoonist Mark Popkin and a fine English horn player who sang the return of the theme near the end of the second movement.