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As part of a series of high-quality streaming concerts to view from the comfort of home while live performances are still limited, the North Carolina Symphony presented a chamber concert of "Musician's Choice" works on Saturday, resulting in an eclectic program of player favorites ranging from Mozart to Takemitsu. Ticketholders were invited to a "pre-show talk," streamable on-demand with associate conductor Wesley Schulz, in a YouTube video that ran about thirteen minutes, giving a little context to the pieces beyond the included program notes but mostly adding his enthusiasm and anticipatory energy prior to the performance.
The music was livestreamed from Meymandi Concert Hall via YouTube, complete with a running text chat that audience members could participate in during the performance, contributing a familiar feeling of getting to converse in the lobby about the program to come. The videographers and sound designers must be acknowledged (even if they weren't specifically credited), as the overall quality of the evening was superb and probably the next-best thing to attending in person!
Oboist Joseph Peters acted as a de facto emcee for the event, further introducing and contextualizing pieces. He also spoke with some of the players in short interludes aired between pieces, so the audience got some insight into why these were some of the musicians' choices.
All the works were presented as short, bite-sized pieces or movements from larger works (except for a brass quintet), beginning with the first Allegro from String Quartet in C, Op. 1, No. 1, by Joseph Bologne. Also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Bologne was a contemporary of W.A. Mozart, son of a French nobleman and an African woman enslaved on his plantation. He was renowned for his talent as a fencer, became a knight and bodyguard to royalty, and composed some of France's first string quartets. The significance of the "Black Mozart" being programmed soon after 2020's Black Lives Matter protests and social upheaval was not lost and, in fact, the Winston-Salem Symphony is taking it a step further by collaborating with the National Black Repertory Company on a concert theatre tour of The Chevalier: A Voice to be Heard on January 21. This performance, by violinists Anton Shelepov and Emily Rist Glover, violist Sandra Schwarcz, and cellist Elizabeth Beilman, was crisp, polished, and vibrant.
Shelepov was joined by David Meyer for the first movement of Zoltán Kodály's Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, Allegro serioso, non troppo, which Shelepov described as "full of contrasting, complicated feelings" that reflect those of the pre-WWI environment in which it was composed. The piece is immediately passionate and tempestuous, full of satisfying, powerful bow strokes and furious vibrato. However, these are balanced by mysterious pizzicati (plucked strings) sections and quiet, pensive melodies. Shelepov and Meyer were an excellent pair in musical dialogue, deftly handing melodies back and forth, working in unison, imitation, call-and-response, and sometimes even dissonance, their roles constantly shifting, reversing, or uniting.
A totally new ensemble then entered for a selection from Mozart's Quartet for Oboe and Strings in F, K.360/368b (Allegro). Peters himself explained that the oboe gets to take on a role similar to a virtuoso soprano in an aria, which he seemed to very much enjoy playing, though never overshadowing the other players. His bright and open tone was not just supported but augmented by the seamless ensemble work of violinist So Yun Kim, violist Kurt Tseng, and cellist Yewon Ahn. Peters particularly flourished through the transition from virtuosically high and technical to light and chordal in the last few bars. In fact, this is one of the more challenging oboe pieces of the time period, as the piece was written specifically to show off the talent of Mozart's friend, oboist Friedrich Ramm.
The next ensemble piece was performed by the largest group that has yet taken the stage in the NC Symphony's '20-'21 season – a nonet! Flutist Mary E. Boone, oboist Sandra Posch, clarinetist Samuel Almaguer, bassoonist Aaron Apaza, and hornist Rachel Niketopoulos, joined forces with violinist Rist Glover, violist Petra Berényi, cellist Sunrise Kim, and double bassist Craig Brown for the opener of Bohuslav Martinů's Nonet No. 2 for Winds and Strings, H.374 (Poco Allegro). In what might be classified more as a chamber orchestra work, the wind players were especially distanced from one another while the string players all wore masks (as all strings and percussion did throughout the program). There was even a plexiglass shield to keep the flute's open end from sending air towards the oboist. Otherwise, it was a relief to see an almost normal larger ensemble performance, and the players were exuberant and working in perfect sync. Each part acted individually, flitting between feelings of power, explorative development, and poetic melody.
Bassoonist Wenmin Zhang introduced the next piece, François Devienne's Quartet for Bassoon and Strings in C, Op. 73, No. 1 (the Rondo: Allegro Moderato movement) as "simple and happy," interspersed with "small pieces of – I don't want to say melody – but of chocolate, or dessert!" Schulz had also used the words "uncomplicated and unabashedly happy" to describe this lively movement. Qi Cao, violin, Tseng, viola, and Peng Li, cello, contributed to this sweet treat that was always energetic and delightful, a refreshing reminder that life goes on and there is still happiness to be found, if sometimes in simple pleasures. The bassoon part may have been simple, but certainly not easy! Zhang's playing was chipper and energetic, sometimes even pastoral, and executed beautifully.
The last two works on the program were performed in their entirety, although they were of comparable length. Victor Vladímirovich Ewald's Brass Quintet No. 1, Op. 5, consists of three movements, all of which blend gorgeous themes into a seamless, utterly pleasant experience. Hornist Kimberly Van Pelt described Ewald's composition as "comfortable" for the players, allowing them to "settle into the music and let it play itself." She was clutching an Empire Brass Quintet album she'd been listening to since she was sixteen, disclosing, "as many times as I play it, I always enjoy it." Seth Horner's tuba opened the work on a haunting solo melody that came back several times, showcasing the delicate passion the instrument is capable of. He and Van Pelt were joined by Paul Randall and Don Eagle, trumpets, and John Ilika, trombone, their harmonies angelic at their softest and triumphant in their loudest. They worked nearly effortlessly as an ensemble – with just the slightest settling needed in some of the trumpet's upper partials – with gorgeously deft syncopated moments and an impressive dynamic range.
To close out the program was something entirely different: Tōru Takemitsu's 1982 Rain Tree. Rajesh Prasad described the "sense of nature" the piece evokes, "not only through the instrument[ation]… but through the lighting that [Takemitsu] has specifically indicated in the score," adding to a "sense of atmosphere." Indeed, the stage was lit an ethereal blue, supported by three disparate spotlights highlighting Prasad and Colin Hartnett on marimbas and crotales (thick metal cymbal-shaped discs that ring out a specific pitch), flanking Richard Motylinski's vibraphone. Schulz appeared as a guest artist to play the part of the lights, which alternated illuminating all three players in sometimes rhythmic and sometimes seemingly random patterns. Prasad and Hartnett worked in call-and-response for most of the piece, setting up a rhythmic, rain-like backdrop for Motylinski's more aleatoric lines – passages that are composed but left up to the performer to pace out ad libitum. Overall, the feeling was otherworldliness, ebbing and flowing in anticipatory lines that were performed precisely yet with a sense of wonder.
These hidden gems were able to ensure very family of the orchestra was represented in works that showcased each's unique sounds, qualities, and musical heritages. It was an exciting deep-dive into a variety of genres of chamber music, and a welcome reprieve from the general isolation of 2020. The NC Symphony will continue on this theme with a performance on January 30th of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, featuring violinist Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky.