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A beefed-up Winston-Salem Symphony, under the baton of Music Director Robert Moody, performed two humongous works Sunday afternoon: Also sprach Zarathustra by German Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and the Te Deum by Frenchman Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).
Also sprach Zarathustra was premiered in Frankfurt with the composer at the podium in 1896. The tone poem (a one-movement work that musically evokes or depicts a non-musical source, like a poem, novel, art work, etc.) was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's novel of the same name, published in the 1880s. It calls for a large orchestra and is divided into 9 sections, each titled after a chapter in the book. The opening section (Sunrise) has become especially famous because of its use in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was the first time the entire work has been performed by the Winston-Salem Symphony.
I counted more than 90 musicians on the stage, but that was small change compared to what the Berlioz would bring after intermission! Strauss' score makes full use of this gigantic assemblage, creating mammoth climaxes in the hyper-Romantic work. Before the music began, the opening of Nietzsche's book was projected on the screen above the orchestra, thereby giving an overview of the upcoming musical journey.
"Sunrise" begins with a low C emanating from the depths of the orchestra until the entire orchestra erupts (several times) into a series of breath-taking climaxes. It was indeed thrilling to hear that huge orchestra, which also including organ, let loose. The opening C-G-C becomes a motive that is heard through the rest of the work.
The entire work is played without a pause, as one section moves quickly into another. Suffice to say that there is luscious string writing, powerful brass and perky winds galore. Occasionally, one can hear snippets reminiscent of the character of the composer's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, written a couple of years earlier.
The first chairs of all sections were put on display. Concertmaster Daniel Skidmore's fine violin was especially noticeable, either as solo or with other string players: violist Simon Ertz and cellist Brooks Whitehouse. At the conclusion, Maestro Moody recognized each section in turn, including the 5 percussionists. Kudos to all!
Berlioz's Te Deum was premiered in Paris in 1855 with the composer leading the 900+ (!) performers at the Church of Saint-Eustache. The work is in six movements and was originally intended to serve as an imaginary triumph of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although the WSS orchestra was diminished by about 30 players for this work, they were joined by 125+ singers: choirs from Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale (Dr. Christopher Gilliam, director) and the Winston-Salem State University Choir (Maetsra D'Walla Simmons Burke, director). Seated in front of the stage, in the front rows of the audience were an additional 30 voices of the Winston-Salem Youth Chorus (Dr. Sonja Sepúlveda, director). Impressive forces.
The organ, played wonderfully by James Jones, has an important role throughout the work. That was evident from the opening when the full orchestra and organ traded power chords. A descending line from the organ led into the extroverted, imitative opening of the first movement "Te Deum" (We Praise Thee) and employed the entire forces – organ, orchestra, adult and children's choirs. The movement ended softly and ushered in the second movement "Tibi omnes" (To Thee All Angels Cry Aloud).
This was a more subdued, quieter reflection, although it was capped by a powerful conclusion with a gentle organ coda. "Dignare" (Vouchsafe, O Lord) featured the organ with pizzicato strings before the chorus entered in a supplicating manner. A sturdy "Christe, Rex gloriae" (Christ, Thou Art the King of Glory) featured some gorgeous soft, a cappella singing from the choir and ended in a blaze of glory.
Mezzo soprano Elizabeth Bishop joined the forces for the stirring fifth movement "Te ergo quaesumus" (We therefore pray thee). Her singing was sensitive and expressive; her vocal timbre was rich from top to bottom. The finale "Judex crederis" (We believe that) began with powerful organ chords and closed out the 45-minute work with triumphant brass blaring and full organ.
Maestro Moody encouraged the orchestra to play with majesty and great color. The choirs were all well prepared and sang with good diction and energy, although sometimes the children's chorus could not be heard from where I was sitting. Projected translations above the orchestra were helpful in following the music. It was, indeed, an afternoon of grandeur and glory.