There has been a succession of searches for new music directors across the state and, so far, the orchestras seem to be batting 1000. In their short tenure, Christof Perick and Dmitry Sitkovetsky, with the Charlotte Symphony and Greensboro Symphony, respectively, have brought their orchestras up to new levels of excellence. Grant Llewellyn's inaugural concerts with the North Carolina Symphony augur well, having created high expectations. Box offices sales seem to be following suit. This season is the Winston-Salem Symphony's turn to search. Their venue, the Stevens Center, has some of the best acoustics in the state. With many players drawn from or trained at the NC School of the Arts, there is no lack of talent in the orchestra. Former Music Director Peter Perret's long tenure left it with high musical standards. Press coverage has focused on declining audiences as the orchestra's main problem.
There are five candidates for music director. The first, Robert Moody, was heard September 26. He is currently Resident Conductor of the Phoenix Symphony, Music Director of the Phoenix Youth Orchestra, Conductor of the Oklahoma City "Discovery" Series, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Hilton Head Opera. He began his career as a choral conductor and has led in that capacity at Brevard Music Center and the Santa Fe Opera.
Moody's novelty, from his Southwest experiences, turned out to be unusually attractive and interesting. Danzón No. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez (b.1950) is based upon a dance of Cuban origin. Unlike many Latin works dominated by folk-like rhythms, Marquez shows considerable ingenuity in creating transparent and open orchestral textures. A fine solo by Principal Clarinetist Christopher Grymes, underpinned by pizzicatos for cellos, violas, and second violins, opened the piece. Latin rhythms were ever present. The first and very memorable melody was sung by the viola section, playing as one. Wood blocks and a piano were part of the percussion section; a fragment featuring the keyboard reminded me of Gershwin. There were fine solos for Concertmistress Corine Brouwer and Principal Trumpet Anita Cirba. Most impressive was the composer's varied use of the string sections, which helped give the work an attractive texture. Kudos for Moody's taste.
I was unfamiliar with pianist Robert McDonald, soloist for Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54, and that has been my loss. His interpretation was one of the most sensitive and absorbing I have ever heard, live or on recordings. He played with a gorgeous tone, and his phrasing was most convincing - it was very much like hearing the old war-horse afresh, for the first time. His interactions with orchestra members such as oboist John Ellis or clarinetist Grymes were well integrated, just like in chamber music. Too many conductors make "pea soup" of Schumann's orchestrations, but Moody is not of that ilk. His carefully balanced and attentive accompaniment, with all strands clear, was excellent. McDonald is on the piano faculties of Juilliard and the Peabody Conservatory, and he is an active and enthusiastic chamber musician. I have always admired the high artistic quality of local and guest soloists chosen by the Winston-Salem Symphony. They have been more consistently satisfying than too-often burnt-out but well-marketed "big names."
Moody led a fine standard interpretation of Prokofiev's massive Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, Op. 100. Some of the slow movements were led in part without a baton. Like other orchestras in the state, the Winston-Salem Symphony is not overly rich in strings. Given that, Moody was successful in balancing the strings and the brass most of the time. Section ensemble was tight, and solos by the principals were first rate.
Moody held an informal question-and-answer session with interested audience members after the concert. He praised Perret's artistic accomplishments and drew attention to the orchestra's high level of performance, compared to the size of the city, and to the positive role of the NCSA. Several questions focused on building audiences in general and expanding the number of younger people in those audiences. He praised the programming of Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, and he gave examples of his own cutting-edge programming with the Phoenix Orchestra, which has played a concerto for synthesizer and featured "scratch and spin" rap disc jockeys. He touched upon aspects of institutional loyalty. If appointed, he would expect to maintain an active guest-conducting schedule. The Greenville, SC, native said he welcomed a chance to return to the Carolinas and that he was "hungry" for his own orchestra, having been an assistant conductor for about a decade.