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Celebrating their 75th Anniversary with a fanfare of favorites, the Winston-Salem Symphony filled the Stevens Center with some of the most recognizable works from Shostakovich, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. Featuring esteemed piano soloist Alexandra Dariescu and guest conductor JoAnn Falletta, the W-S Symphony spared no expense for the jubilee. In addition to a great selection of classics and eminent guests, WSS took health and safety precautions seriously – knowing that audience members had to verify vaccination status and wear masks for the duration of the performance put my nerves at ease.
Beckoned first to the podium with an ebullient wave of applause, assistant conductor Karen Ní Bhroin assumed the lead of the orchestra for Shostakovich's spectacular "Festive Overture." I've had the pleasure of playing "Festive Overture" with several groups and I've listened to it more times than I can count. As excited as I was to hear the W-S Symphony for the first time, I was entering this performance with some big expectations. Anticipating a full-bodied and glorious herald of brassiness in the opening fanfare, I was surprised to hear clarity and transparency of sound from the trumpets and horns in the initial chords. Sophisticated and cool, the brass players were joined by woodwinds and strings in a charged entrance that added necessary depth and warmth to the sound. As the chorale proceeded, growing in vigor and pining for a release, I was surprised yet again as Ní Bhroin discarded the potential of a break-neck acceleration for a more collected and refined tempo.
With a flourish of piccolo and a brisk, joyous clarinet solo, the real brilliance of "Festive Overture" unfolded. Bubbling offbeats in the horns, delicate pizzicato in the strings, and a sparkling woodwind sound takes the piece through an exciting coaster ride and delivers the audience again to the theme of the opening fanfare. Memorable for its jubilance, "Festive Overture" was the opener-of-all-openers for this particular celebration.
Together with Falletta, Dariescu joined the orchestra on stage. Described as an original voice among piano soloists, Dariescu is known for several world premieres across the globe and is best known for her work "The Nutcracker and I," a reimagined small-ensemble production of The Nutcracker. Dariescu's performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor under Falletta was sensible and controlled. Even in the concluding moments of the first movement, Dariescu signaled a severe sense of finality without ever relying on superfluous force or drama. Sandwiched in between two incredibly celebratory works, I found the most enjoyment in Dariescu's lullaby-like performance of the concerto's second movement. Her playing was so soothing and reassuring without ever losing interest.
Graciously returning to her seat at the piano for a witty encore performance, Dariescu thanked us for our enthusiasm and introduced us to her final work, a solo composition by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Dariescu enticed us with the description that the solo is "so fast that if you blink, you might miss it." "Fast" alone falls short of describing the rush of sound woven by Dariescu's fingers on the piano. Fluid, dynamic, and with all the sweeping reverberance of a harp's tensile strings, Dariescu pushed the limits of piano playing. Snappy and impressive, her encore might have received even more applause than the Grieg.
Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony in F minor, an epic chronicle of the pursuit of happiness against the forces of fate, concluded the evening. Beginning with the famously fortuitous four-note motive and mighty punctuations from woodwinds and strings, the W-S Symphony set the machinations of fate to music. Characterized by alternating moments of secured triumph and the doom of preordainment, the performers' unyielding musicianship precisely set the exposition necessary for the following movements.
Breaking many compositional conventions of the symphonic form, Tchaikovsky's work is instead an organized compilation of effluent melodic invention. This melody-driven construction gave the woodwind section yet another moment to enjoy in the sun. A sophisticated oboe solo at the beginning of the second movement and again in bassoon at the end of the movement sounded reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's ballet writing.
Whereas Ní Bhroin displayed a degree of restraint with "Festive Overture," Falletta embraced the heroic momentum of the Fourth Symphony. Especially impressive was the buoyant third movement which features hurried pizzicato string playing. Waiting to unleash until the very last moment, the orchestra let loose the depth, fullness, and power of their sound in the spectacle of the fourth movement. It created a great last impression deserving of the standing ovation and several final rounds of applause from the audience.
With Haydn, Gershwin, Beethoven, Mozart, and more Tchaikovsky slated for the rest of their season, it looks like the Winston Salem Symphony will continue its role as a reliable source of classics from the orchestra repertoire.