The Winston-Salem Symphony programmed works referring to insects in the first half of the second concert of the 65th season in the glorious Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Opening with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Overture to The Wasps (based on Aristophanes’ play by the same name), and followed by the “Flight of the Bumblebee” from Tale of Tsar Saltan by Nicolai Rimski-Korsakoff, Maestro Moody then introduced the audience to the endearing concerto, entitled “Butterfly Lovers Concerto,” written in 1959 by two Chinese composers (He Zhanhao and Chen Gang) to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The concerto, while charming and filled with Chinese idiomatic themes and techniques, is not a particularly profound composition – but it was the perfect vehicle to introduce the outstanding German-American soloist, Steven Moeckel, to the Piedmont audiences. Moeckel is a big musician, in every sense of the word!  Towering over the stage, he was capable of producing the sweetest, most tender tone to introduce the first theme of the concerto – and in subsequent sections of this many-chaptered work, while he was at times menacing or cajoling or seductive, his tone remained pure honey! 

The title of the concerto is derived from a traditional Chinese opera of the same name and describes two ill-fated lovers who eventually are united in death and metamorphize, according to legend, into a pair of butterflies. Exceptional playing was presented by Kathryn Levy, flute, and Brooks Whitehouse, cello, whose dialogues with the solo violin were breathtaking. And all this music sought to avoid the fourth tone of the scale (“F” in C major, for example) while adhering loosely to the pentatonic scale.

One is tempted to suggest more works to follow the theme set out in the first half of the concert:  Albert Roussel’s Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Feast), Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs or Ottorino Respighi’s Gli Ucelli (The Birds), the last two with an extra nod to Aristophanes. But no, we left the animal kingdom behind at intermission and changed the mood entirely.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Antonín Dvořák’s complex and brooding Symphony No. 7 in D minor. The second theme of the first movement, a felicitous theme in a major mode, consciously recalled moments of Brahms’ Third Symphony. Otherwise most of the movement glowered mysteriously or boldly threw its bombastic brass at the audience.

The second movement, Poco adagio, posed the problem of cohesion to the orchestra. Unfortunately, it came across as a series of episodes without any overarching form. And woodwind intonation (flute vs. bassoon) problems crept in to complicate the issue. The third movement, Scherzo: Vivace started in a lilting waltz-like rhythm but soon the composer changed his lilt to the heavy pounding of brass and tympani. The Finale, with its “Bali Ha’i” shaped theme, was very impressive throughout and ended in a long-awaited major mode!  This symphony does not deserve to be so rarely played – its very complexity begs familiarity!  Maestro Moody – thank you for the courage to present it to us!

The entire concert was well played – from the incisive trills which signal the presence of Wasps to the closing rolls of the tympani at the end of the Dvořák symphony. The concert will be repeated Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 7:30 in the Stevens Center on the corner of Fourth and Marshall Streets in downtown Winston-Salem.