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Timothy Myers is the second candidate to audition for the position of music director of the Winston-Salem Symphony, a process that includes numerous meetings and rehearsals with the various constituents that form the W-S Symphony Association. These include the Symphony Chorale, various levels of the W-S Youth Symphony, the board of Didectors, donors, volunteers, staff – and of course, the W-S Symphony orchestra, the flagship ensemble of some 75 professional musicians who play over 50 concerts annually. This process culminates in the presentation of a pair of concerts featuring works chosen by the search committee – a concerto and a major symphonic piece – as well as a shorter work or an overture proposed by the candidate.The concerts take place in the Stevens Center of the UNCSA on Sunday afternoons and the following Tuesdays.
Maestro Myers chose works by two contemporary female American composers, Jennifer Higdon and Missy Mazzoli, to open the concert. Higdon is one of the most frequently performed composers in the US; her fame began with a work entitled "Blue Cathedral." The piece played here, entitled "Machine," is a brilliant short (two-minute) musical explosion, squarely in 4/4 time, with many complex rhythms occurring simultaneously over sliding trombones and compulsive percussion. Originally composed to serve as an orchestral encore, it is a perfect opener, leaving one wishing for more.
"These Worlds in Us," by Missy Mazzoli, lasts about eight minutes but packs a wealth of musical color into that time. Built on the repetition of a falling major third (usually sliding, as in glissando), a sliding fourth and, from there, a tritone below, the pulsing rhythm is often a combination of duple and triple, always with the sliding third and tritone lurking nearby. Despite the ominous quiet ending (featuring the mysterious dark trumpet of Anita Cirba), this is an attractive piece I would happily hear again – it has certainly put the name of Mazzoli on my radar!
If the previous guest conductor was prolix and had planned his comments for maximum audience effect, the few words Maestro Myers shared with us seemed off-the-cuff and casual as he filled the time needed to place the Steinway grand piano center stage. He thanked the orchestra for the kind welcome it had shown him and his wife during their visit to Winston-Salem and gave us his reasons for starting the concert with the two works discussed.
Dmitri Vorobiev was the brilliant soloist in the Piano Concerto in G (1929-31) by French composer Maurice Ravel – a work clearly influenced by Gershwin and the spread of jazz to France in the 1920s. Ravel visited the United States in 1928 and met Gershwin several times as well as Paul Whiteman, the “King of Jazz.” And later the same year, Gershwin visited Ravel in Paris. We see the “blue” note appearing in the second half of Ravel’s famous Boléro theme as well as the intricate use of syncopation throughout that piece (1928). Nevertheless, the Piano Concerto in G remains ensconced in the post-Romantic Impressionistic style French composers of the period (Debussy and Satie as well as Ravel) perfected.
Starting with a simulated whiplash in the percussion section, the piano and orchestra seem to be chasing each other furiously for much of the first movement, aided and abetted by colorful interjections from the piccolo, high E-flat clarinet, and English horn. A long mesmerizing harp solo, played by Helen Rifas, featured mini-glissandi high on the harp with a slow blues tune in harmonics lower on the instrument. A horn solo, high in the castrato register, was perfectly played by Robert Campbell.
Vorobiev, absent from the stage of the Stevens Center for too long, was powerful and brilliant in this, his debut performance of the Ravel Concerto. His long, nostalgic, opening solo in the second movement was gorgeous, ending in a super-soft pianissimo as the orchestra seamlessly blended into the fabric – a superb moment. Cara Fish played the recap of this theme gorgeously on the English horn while the piano improvised in filigree, high on the keyboard. The headlong rush of the Presto finale was exciting enough to elicit a genuine standing ovation from the large audience.
The entire second half of the concert was filled by P. I. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in B minor, Op. 74, known as the Pathétique. I chose to sit in the acoustically superior balcony for the symphony, where I found a small audience, including many music faculty members from various universities and conservatories.
It is always a pleasure to hear this monumental work, even if it showed some problems of precision here. Attacks were uneven (divided basses at the beginning, both times!) detracting from the magnificent bassoon solo of Saxton Rose. However, the first divided viola entrance of the theme in the Allegro non troppo section of the first movement was brilliant! The clarinet solo of Anthony Taylor (followed by the brief bass clarinet solo of Ronald Rudkin) was movingly soft. However the coda to the first movement lacked weight and felt pedestrian.
The lilting 5/4 “waltz” was tender and moving although the middle section seemed exaggeratedly accented. The third movement, a scherzo in all but name, was powerful enough to elicit spontaneous applause but threatened to run away at the climax.
The emotional finale, marked Adagio lamentoso, is perhaps the most striking feature of this symphony, ending quietly and ominously, with divided basses at the close – as they had opened it, albeit with the addition of divided cellos. Tchaikovsky was extremely precise, giving tempo markings for every phrase, often accompanied by metronome indications as well as precise indications of how loud each phrase should be, from triple forte (fff) to quintuple piano (ppppp).
Maestro Myers was attentive to details although I would have liked more subtlety and clarity in how the sections of the orchestra were balanced as well as how the sections of the symphony related to each other, another type of balance.
The program repeats Tuesday evening, November 6, at 7:30 PM. See the sidebar for details.