Orchestral Music Review

Winston-Salem Symphony MD Search, Round 3

November 21, 2004 - Winston-Salem, NC:

If the musicianship of the candidates for the Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony continues at the high level of the last concert (October 17) and the latest one, heard November 21 in the Stevens Center, the final choice will be very difficult. The third candidate, John Morris Russell, is currently M.D. of the Windsor (Ontario) Symphony and Associate Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He has an active guest conducting schedule, having conducted a children’s concert with the New York Philharmonic the previous week. He has a reputation for filling halls and for conducting Pops concerts. In after-concert remarks, he drew a sharp distinction between programming classical, pops, and educational concerts. Community involvement was a strong theme running through all his remarks.

The too-seldom-programmed overture to Borodin’s Prince Igor opened the concert. Russell secured a large and full string sound while maintaining good balance with the brasses. Fine section principal solos were given by clarinetist Christopher Grymes and Frederick Bergstone, who made a welcome return to the horn section at this performance. A few rough spots will surely be cleaned up by the time of the repeat performance.

In October 2002, teenage violinist Min Lee, a discovery of former M.D. Peter Perret, made an impressive debut, and her return, with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D, further enhanced that view. Eschewing surface showmanship, she approached the warhorse with a refreshing air of intimacy. Her musical choices reflected a depth beyond her chronological age. She played the edition with the standard cuts. I hope that in the future she will join a growing number of soloists who have chosen to open those cuts. To her bow and fingers, the technical demands seemed effortless. The important chamber-music-like duets with clarinetist Grymes, flutist Kathryn Levy, and oboist John Ellis were well integrated and strongly characterized. Russell provided a well-balanced accompaniment that featured tight string ensemble. (Lee has recorded this concerto under the direction of Vladimir Ashkenazy – the release is pending.)

Any doubts that Lee might lack some of the "firebrand’s chops" vanished during her encore, which began as the simple tune, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and quickly became a tour-de-force of every imaginable bowing and fingering technique. Had she continued to hit increasingly higher notes, this reviewer would have needed a "hearing ear dog!" She bowed in spots and ways I had never imagined, and I have seen and heard more than a few virtuosi!

Dmitri Shostakovich ranks high in Russell’s pantheon, and it was evident in every note of his superb interpretation of the composer’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47. His view was well within the bounds of tradition, but the work sounded newly minted. The ensemble was very tight and precise, and the sonority was dark and rich. The heart of the piece, the slow movement, sculpted with rapt intensity, was the most satisfying of all. There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of fine solos from Concertmistress Corine Brower, flutist Levy (in every movement), bassoonist Mark Popkin, contrabassoonist Carol Bernstorf, oboist Ellis, and timpanist Massie Johnson. The brasses, and particularly the five horns, sounded glorious, indeed.