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The new Maestro was standing on a new wooden podium in front of a new orchestra set-up, conducting an exciting and innovative program that included a new concerto (two years old) and concluded with the fearsome Rite of Spring, by the iconoclastic composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). The Stevens Center was packed for the season's opening concert of the Winston-Salem Symphony under the direction of the recently hired Music Director, Timothy Redmond.
As I looked for my seat, I noticed the musicians on stage warming up, but standing up rather than sitting in orderly fashion. I burst out laughing as I thought that we were innovating the old but abandoned practice of playing standing up. In my conservatory days, I always practiced while standing as do most musicians but. excepting soloists, most players sit when in concert and of course cellists must always be seated. There are some notable exceptions (Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, and more than a few chamber ensembles). However, Redmond explained after the performance that he wanted to recreate the feeling of Mozart's time when the orchestra did indeed stand ‒ and bow in unison, to the audience's amusement.
The performance of the Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K.385 ("Haffner"), by Mozart was first-rate! Even without period instruments, the Winston-Salem Symphony applied period performance practices with sensible limits, in such things as vibrato, accents, bowings, and balance ‒ which made for the best classical-style playing heard from the orchestra in many years.
The bold opening of the first movement, marked Allegro con spirito ("Cheerful, with spirit"), is remarkable for the five two-octave leaps of the violins in the first five measures, a trait that he uses repeatedly through the movement. Interestingly, and contrary to the prevailing practice, the first movement only has one proper theme (rather than the traditional two), which might explain why the two segments of the movement are played without repeat! The charming second movement, marked Andante (why were all movement indications missing from the printed program?), was delicate and witty, eliciting some child-like prancing from the conductor, who mimed the music rather than prosaically beating it. Happily, both repeats were taken, so our pleasure was doubled. The fast Menuetto (Allegro) has one of Mozart's most tender trios to which the musicians added the slightest hint of a rubato leading to the repeat of the first strain – oh, so subtle and delightful! The Presto finale is a romping rondo in which the opening melody keeps recurring after intermingling with variants until a witty coda, built on a rising scale showered with grace notes, produces it a final time leading to a swift and brilliant ending.
While the stage crew restored the chairs to the otherwise empty stage, a film clip was projected on a large screen over the stage, showing the composer of the next work, Jennifer Higdon, speaking about her Low Brass Concerto and sending her congratulations to the new Music Director. The Maestro then spoke at length to the audience about features of the program, which was already chosen before the new music director had been picked by the search committee. Relating past to present, comparing one work with another and situating them all in a musical present, Redmond proved to be a fascinating speaker.
Higdon is one of the most performed composers alive at this time. Winner of numerous awards (Pulitzer, several Grammys), she is head of the composition department at the famed Curtis Institute of Music. The concerto is written for four soloists, three trombones and tuba and featured Brian French and David Wulfeck, tenor trombones, Erik Salzwedel, bass trombone, and Matt Ransom, tuba – all are regular members of the Winston-Salem Symphony.
The concerto is written in one continuous movement, with three or four distinct sections which flow together, ending with a recap of the second section as a sort of coda. The opening is for the soloists alone ‒ a fully-blended rich sound, warm and tender, almost a hymn or chorale, played in a triple meter. The orchestra enters, building expressively to a broad climax which yields to a jazzy section in a rather complex 5/4 meter which is the only stable element, an ostinato of sorts, as the rhythms ignite and build. A lovely and whimsical color is produced when the percussion section plays metallic bells, high over the low brass soloists. The chorale section reappears with variations – trumpets, led by Judith Saxton, followed by oboes, all evoking unusual colors supported by the pure sound of the brass soloists. The jazzy 5/4 section returns repeatedly, always a little higher until a theme sounding similar to the traditional funereal Dies irae dominates to end the piece. This was quite enjoyable, particularly the fabulous cohesive sound of these four players.
After intermission, the orchestra swelled by the addition of two dozen extra players in anticipation of the evening's pièce de résistance. But first, the orchestra played the introduction to The Creation by Josef Haydn. Written near the end of his life when he was through with string quartets and symphonies, it is the depiction of the universe before the Creation: Chaos! Mysterious triplets dash through muted dissonant harmonic textures of strings and arpeggios wander aimlessly while double-dotted notes rise slowly until the work ends as it began, on unison "C."
Seamlessly, without losing a beat, the bassoon, superbly played by Saxton Rose, high in its castrato tessitura, enters also on "C" and we are now in Stravinsky's masterpiece, Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), a work which changed music forever. Written in two large sections, Adoration of the Earth and the Sacrifice, the ballet depicts the annual springtime rite of selecting a virgin who ultimately dances herself to death, presumably to bring forth prosperity from the earth. It was a failure as a ballet – the wonderful Ballet Russe was known for its beautiful ballerinas and dancers as well as its daring costumes. Although Nijinsky was rumored to have been nude when he premiered Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune," the dancers in Le sacre were clothed down to the floor with almost no skin visible and much of their rhythmic" dancing consisted of primitive stomping of the earth. Add music that changed meter more often than not with rhythms that were so repetitious, it's no wonder that Paris erupted in scandal! However, the work has found its home in the concert hall where it is cheered ‒ as it was on Sunday afternoon in the Stevens Center.
A work as complex as this requires simple straight-forward clarity. Here Maestro Redmond was impeccably clear, using a baton for the first time of the evening. It was an impressive orchestral performance marred by only the smallest bits of miscounting. (Ironically, most orchestras make more mistakes when not playing than when playing, starting to play at the wrong moment.) This was truly a great performance ‒ super softs preceding primitive blasts of energy – the famous 11 identical chords stomped out. It was striking to watch the musicians as they concentrated on counting – heads bobbing in unison as the measures changes all the time.
Bravo to the Symphony! Bravo Maestro!
This program will be repeated in the same venue on Oct. 29. See the sidebar for details.