The mayor of Winston-Salem, His Honor Allen Joines, made it official after the intermission at the opening concert of the 76th season of the Winston-Salem Symphony – from the stage of Reynolds Auditorium, he proclaimed this day “Michelle Merrill Day,” thereby defining the next chapter of the Winston-Salem Symphony Book. Welcome aboard, Maestra!

The concert started with the annual opening-day performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a solemn tradition in the classical music scene. The Carnival Overture by Antonin Dvořák followed, with its full dose of infectious exuberance which typifies the annual Mardi Gras celebration. The melancholy English horn solo by Anna Lampidis was matched by the lovely violin solo of Concertmaster Corine Brouwer in the middle moments of musical introspection. The brilliant Poco piú mosso (aka Presto!) at the end set a high standard for the evening.

I was unfamiliar with the playing of the featured guest soloist, Kristin Lee, but not for long – what a beautiful tone, and what a fresh vision of one of my favorite concertos, “the” Brahms Concerto in D, Opus 77, composed in 1888, when Brahms was in his mid-50s. Surely a part of Lee’s gorgeous tone is due to the exquisite craftsmanship of violin-maker Gennaro Gagliano, who in 1759 carved the violin she plays, thanks to a kind loan from Paul and Linda Gridley. And her phrasing and expressivity were in the best style of Brahms and fresh, with occasional spontaneous breaths (Luftpause). Particularly beautiful was the second movement where oboist Amanda LeBrecque set the stage for the lovely variations which Lee pursued alternatively with peace and passion.

After intermission, the much-expanded orchestra played one of the most popular works by Leonard Bernstein (“Lenny”), the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Here Merrill was totally in charge of the large army of musicians, and take charge she did – from Mambo to Samba and Cha-cha-cha, even a 12-tone love song! The orchestra was tight, percussion pounding, brass wailing, solo flute mourning and conductor displaying moments of care-free nonchalance. That was quite a performance – topped only by the encore, an excursion into the tipsy world of Candide as delivered in the Overture to the 1956 operetta composed by Lenny and based on the play by the same name by Voltaire, whose theme “the best of all possible worlds,” may be summed up by the song, “Glitter and be gay!”

I had been somewhat disappointed by the performance of the Dvořák, mostly because of balance – instruments seemed inappropriately loud at times and at others, inaudible when they should have been dominant. This had been a long-time complaint about the acoustics at Reynolds, somewhat improved by the installation a set of small speakers under the balcony in the 1970s. A conversation with Frank Martin, who has been the “sound man” for Winston-Salem Symphony recordings for over a quarter century, revealed that those particular speakers were off for the moment and that we were hearing the pure and simple unadulterated sound of the hall. I moved to the upper level (Mezzanine) at intermission and was rewarded with superb sound as well as excellent sight lines, reminding me that before the move to the Stevens Center in 1983 (in the days before reserved seating) the mezzanine and part of the balcony in Reynolds Auditorium used to fill up as soon as the doors were opened. Now I understand why!