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Orchestral Music Review Print

Brooding Shostakovich, Brilliant Gershwin by Winston-Salem Symphony & Soloist

February 7, 2010 - Winston-Salem, NC:

Braving the remnants of two successive winter storms, some brave souls ventured out to the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for a hastily prepared program of the Winston-Salem Symphony, led by Music Director, Robert Moody.

Cutely (if irreverently) entitled “Shostakovich and All That Jazz,” the concert opened with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, last heard in Winston-Salem in the emotionally charged days of September, 2001 (the original Tuesday night performance was rescheduled for Thursday, September 13th). Written in reaction to the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, Shostakovich makes a strong case for artistic individuality (as opposed to art by and for the collective), even going so far as to use the German spelling of his name as a musical motif – D S C H – D, E-flat, C, B-natural in the third and fourth movements, a device he also used in his violin concerto.

Cast in the usual four movements, the symphony in anything but usual: the first movement is a melancholy and sometimes bitter reflection of the hardship and uncertainty of the times, whereas the ferocity and venom of Stalinism is described in the raw and rash second movement, a short and furious apocalyptic race; the third movement combines bitter-sweet, tongue-in-cheek humor with the emerging motif “DSCH,” with a motif referring to a composition student that Shostakovich had fallen in love with. The Finale recaps many of the somber moods and themes visited earlier in the symphony, and, after many hints, erupts in a lively and somewhat hysterical movement of great energy. The whole symphony ends in an affirmative mood with the timpanist exuberantly beating out the tattoo, “DSCH.”

Mostly, this was an excellent performance, especially considering that one rehearsal was sacrificed to “Old Man Winter” – which touts the resilience and reserve of this orchestra, one of the best in the Carolinas. Apart from a couple of not-quite-together brass attacks, a bobbled double reed unison later in the evening, and some unbalance in the decimated bass section, the orchestra acquitted itself admirably, with special mention for the long and beautifully expressive woodwind solos of Anthony Taylor, clarinet, Kathy Levy on the very low flute, and Saxton Rose, bassoon, and the breath-taking and haunting beauty of the piccolo duet at the end of the first movement.

The only movement which failed to hold together was the pivotal third, which introduces a bit of humor and the DSCH theme as well as the horn call of the enamored “Elmira.” The painstaking deliberation (slowness) seemed to stifle the macabre humor and caused other tempos to fall out of place. Perhaps the lack of rehearsal caused Maestro Moody to “play it safe…”

After intermission, the orchestra featured the soloist, Bryan Wallick, in George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. Despite my fear of a mismatch or a programming malapropism, the Gershwin actually seemed to work well after the Shostakovich. It is a serious work which demands the attention of the audience and orchestra. Mr. Wallick was brilliant in the work and Moody conducted with the natural attentiveness he instinctively gives this genre of music. Anita Cirba, trumpet, played some achingly beautiful long solos in the soulful second movement with an uncanny haunting tone, while the violins lowered their instruments to the guitar position for their strumming accompaniment.

The audience, sparse in the balcony, leapt to its feet, cheering its approval. After the very long concert they were awarded an encore (unnecessary in this writer’s opinion): Vladimir Horowitz’s transcription of the familiar “Radetzky March” by Hector Berlioz, which was not played as cleanly as one might have expected from a Gold Medal winner of the Horowitz Piano Competition. Sometimes, more is less!

The concert will be repeated on Tuesday, February 9th.