Maestro John Gordon Ross opened the 53rd season of the Western Piedmont Symphony and his 27th season as music director of the orchestra with a multi-faceted all-American program played in the P. E. Munroe Auditorium on the Lenoir Rhyne University campus in Hickory, NC. Any program as entertaining as this one which contained the acclaimed Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin should have filled the house; but on this Homecoming evening on the college campus, that was not the case. More’s the pity because the concert was entertaining and included a stunning premiere performance of North Carolina composer Dan Locklair‘s soon-to-be-a-hit Symphony No. 2, America.

Dr. Locklair teaches music composition (and allied courses) at Wake Forest University and is in constant demand for his works, many of which find their place in devout settings, often incorporating Locklair’s original instrument, the organ. Set for large symphonic forces, America is in three movements, each symbolizing a different aspect of Americana, as portrayed by the songs and hymns associated with their eponymous titles: “Independence Day,” “Memorial Day,” and “Thanksgiving Day.” Their associated songs or themes are cunningly cloaked in polyrhythmic disguises and only occasionally “come clean,” as when “America, the Beautiful” brought tears to the eyes of the audience, which showed its approval by a genuine spontaneous burst of applause.

Unlike Charles Ives‘ century-old New England Holiday Symphony with its intentional dissonances and polytonal effects, most of the tonal adventure in the Locklair came from harmonic ventures and intriguing modulations, following the paths blazed by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Indeed, the ending of the entire symphony was a gorgeous pi-a-nis-si-mo, superbly balanced by Maestro Ross, which poignantly blended the primary themes of the first and third movements.

The first half of the concert spotlighted four composers, beginning with the Mexican composer José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958) whose Huapango is as much a musical form in the music of Latin America as it is the title of a single work. Resembling the Mariachi style of music, the piece included an amusing dialogue between an austere, severe trumpet player and a playfully tipsy trombonist, bringing a smile to my lips.

An unannounced change to the program order brought the evening’s soloist, Michael Lewin, to center stage for the Grande Tarantelle by composer and piano virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Once the pianist starts, it is a moto perpetua until the end – soloist Lewin was champing at the bit. It was fascinating to compare this rapid Italianate 6/8 piece, with essentially one harmony per bar with the previous Latino piece, also in 6/8, but slower, permitting not only two harmonies per bar, but also the restructuring of the accents to make the crossover to three beats per bar (Bernstein’s famous example from West Side Story: Ev’-ry thing’s fine in A – merica!)

After the tarantella showpiece, we were treated to a short sweet piece called “Summerland” by the “dean of African-American composers,” William Grant Still. A prolific composer with many “firsts” to his name, Still has a depth of musicality and breadth of repertory not hinted at in the charming waltz-like “Summerland.”

The major work of the first half of the concert was the iconic Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Soloist Lewin dominated his piano (a Bösendorfer with a brilliantly clear, almost shrill upper register) and seemed to be enjoying himself whereas the orchestra seemed to take it in stride, not hinting at the fun that the soloist and audience were having. Have our orchestras become stodgy? Not the rock bands! Not the gospel choirs! Not the barbershop singers – so why the symphony musicians? We have all been excited by the Venezuelan youth orchestras’ antics – sometimes overdone – but there must be a middle way…? Our own youths’ interest in music may depend on it. And our artistic future!

I shall regret John Gordon Ross’ retirement. He is a builder and an innovator. He, with the encouragement and help of his wife, Sally, has made Hickory a better place to live and the orchestra a summit of creativity and artistic inspiration. We celebrate you!