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A visiting guest conductor, a locally based soloist, and a great program of works for smaller orchestra make this Winston-Salem Symphony concert a rarity and a "must hear" for Triad music-lovers. Bassoonists from all over the region were spotted in the large audience – present to witness one of the most famous and difficult bassoon solos (the last movement of the Fourth Symphony by Beethoven) as well as one of the most beautiful (the recapitulation of the second movement of the same symphony).
The concert opened with a staple of the chamber orchestra repertory, Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll. This charming 18-minute work was a birthday present for Wagner's second wife, Cosima, and was played as a morning surprise at Triebschen, the Wagners' home in Switzerland, and bore the dedication "Triebschen Idyll with Fidi's [son, Siegfried] birdsong and the orange sunrise, as symphonic birthday greeting – presented to his Cosima by her Richard." Originally scored for 13 instruments, it is more appropriately played in the concert hall with a larger complement of strings. We have been celebrating the bi-centennial of Wagner's birth this year.
This was an excellent performance with the strings sounding deep and rich. Phrasing was outstanding, as were the tempo relationships. Lovely solos were turned in by the oboist John Hammarback and trumpeter Anita Cirba, in her cameo appearance. It took a few moments to get used to the beat, suave and elegant, of guest conductor Philip Mann, who appeared to be conducting ahead of the beat. But there was no questioning the fine ensemble playing he produced!
Pianist Myron Brown teaches piano at Winston-Salem State University and is one of a number of distinguished piano faculty members to have taken up residence in the Triad. Dr. Brown chose Mozart's well-known Piano Concerto No. 19, in F Major, as his first work with the Winston-Salem Symphony, and except for an unimportant glitch early in the first movement, played a fine performance with an attentive and compliant orchestra, although for this listener, there was a witless haze surrounding the orchestral playing in the first movement – as though the small rhythms and staccato notes had all been spread into a broad alla breve wash. The solid applause of the large audience brought Dr. Brown back for an unannounced encore, the Toccatina, the third in a set of eight Etudes, Op. 40, by Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin. Brown gave it his all and was rewarded with a roar of approval from the audience, which was all a-buzz at intermission with comments and curiosity about the jazzy encore!
In the second half of the concert, we were offered a charming performance of one of Beethoven's most perfect symphonies, from the point of view of most musicians, the Fourth, in B-flat Major, Op. 60. After a mysterious Adagio introduction in B-flat minor (more or less), in which Beethoven camouflages the second and then the first theme of the ensuing Allegro vivace, the symphony erupts in exuberant effervescence. We were treated to a rarely heard repeat of the exposition, which nicely balanced the long pedal-point leading to the final recapitulation.
The sublime second movement is in complete contrast to the boisterous first. Of it Hector Berlioz wrote (in A Critical Study of the Symphonies of Beethoven, from A travers chants, translated by Michel Austin), "So pure are the forms, so angelic the expression of the melody and so irresistibly tender, that the prodigious skill of the craftsmanship is completely hidden from view." Maestro Mann did a beautiful job of controlling the balances of winds and strings and the pulsating tympani.
Hemiola (juxtaposing two beats against three) lends the Scherzo (or Menuetto – Beethoven uses both titles in the score) a jaunty character, calmed by the more sedate Trio and repeated serially for the first time by Beethoven in this symphony in a technique used often thereafter. With hardly a break, the visiting Maestro launched into the Finale, Allegro non troppo, which did occasionally exceed even Beethoven's breakneck metronome marking of 80 (beats per minute) to the measure. However, both bassoonist Saxton Rose and clarinetist Ron Rudkin "aced" their virtuosic solos as the orchestra brought this excellent concert to a triumphant close. Only occasionally did the orchestra tend to run away with tempos in crescendi, giving an almost Mengelbergian* hue to the fast movements.
This concert will be repeated on Tuesday, November 19, at 7:30 p.m. For details, see the sidedbar.
*Willem Mengelberg, 1871-1951, Dutch conductor famous for speeding up crescendi in Beethoven, as may be heard here, in a highly-celebrated complete recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, made at a 1940 concert performance.