Organ music greeted the audience as it arrived for the Winston-Salem Symphony concert Saturday evening at James A. Gray, Jr. Auditorium in the Old Salem Visitor Center. Dr. John Cummins, playing the 1799/1800 David Tannenberg Organ, provided a warm potpourri of music including works by Pachelbel, J.S. Bach, Paul Manz (1919-2009), and Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006). What a wonderful way to begin a wonderful evening of music.

The formal program began with music from Moravia: Johann Franz Xaver Sterkel’s Sinfonia No. 2 in D, Op. 1, culled from the Moravian Music Foundation by WSS Associate Conductor Matthew Troy. As he explained in his opening comments before conducting the three-movement work, Beethoven met Sterkel in Vienna and was impressed with his piano playing. As luck would have it, Friday, December 3 (the day of the concert) was Sterkel’s birthday, so the Winston-Salem premiere of this early classical work was especially noteworthy.

Troy’s lively conducting style brought life to the Sinfonia. The opening Allegro was chock full of racing string and wind passages, aided by the percussive sound of the harpsichord, played by Nancy Johnston. An amazing amount of timpani helped liven up the movement as well. No winds were present in the slow second movement, but their sound was essential for the romping final Allegro.

WSS Music Director Robert Moody took Troy’s place on the podium for the rest of the evening and warmly greeted the large audience, offering his own welcome and comments about the next work on the program, Beethoven’s First Symphony. Moody pointed out that the only way the audience and symphony could be more intimate would be to “perform in our living room.” The conductor was right, as the audience was right next to the musicians, and the acoustics of the small hall must have been akin to what people during Beethoven’s time would have experienced.

Although the symphony begins with a relaxed Adagio, once the Allegro arrived, Moody took off with good energy, which made the music buoyant and full of good spirit. The Andante cantabile was clean, making the counterpoint very easy to hear. Some passages were a bit more romantic than one might have preferred, but that’s a conversation for another time.

The third movement is a jocular scherzo in every way except title, and Beethoven’s blustery spirit and rhythmic humor is very much in evidence. Moody made the most out of the teasing Adagio of the finale, which functions as a kind of slingshot for the scurrying main tune. The terrific playing by the symphony energized the audience, who was greeted with complementary wine and snacks during intermission.

“Adoration of the Magi” from Trittico Botticelliano by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) utilizes the tune “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to invoke a Christmas spirit. The three wise men were well represented by solid playing from the bassoon (Saxton Rose), oboe (John Hammarback) and flute (Kathryn Levy). I had never heard this work before — what a delight it is! Lively percussion helped heighten the more animated passages.

Soprano Kathryn Mueller and the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale joined the symphony for music from Felix Mendelssohn’s Christus. Mueller’s clear tone and good diction were evident in the recitative, “When Jesus our Lord was born in Bethlehem.” A three-part men’s chorus (representing the three wise men) followed. The chorus “There Shall a Star from Jacob” featured the entire 50+ ensemble and provided for a rousing conclusion to the Mendelssohn segment.

Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria gave the WSS Chorale an extended opportunity to show its depth and variety of singing. Soloists were Mueller and Diana Yodzis (mezzo soprano).  Maestro Moody took the fast sections at a lively clip, which infused the work with energy.

The choral singing of the opening “Gloria in excelsis Deo” was solid and clean — evidence that the ensemble was well prepared by its conductor, Dr. Carole Ott. The more somber “Et in terra pax” showed a more lyric, gentler side of the ensemble. The powerfully sung choral fugue “cum Sancto Spiritu” provided a running jump into the final grand passages that close out this perennial Christmas favorite. 

The two soloists sang the “Laudamus te” with artistry and joy, and hearing the two lines cavort with each other was delightful. “Domine Deus” features a solo oboe line that wove wonderful threads with Mueller’s long-breathed phrases. Yodzis’ beautiful, rich voice was a perfect match for the elegant “Domine Deus,” as well as the “Qui sedes.”

This is the second year of the joint venture of Old Salem and the Winston-Salem Symphony, and by all means, the relationship should continue — it would be hard to imagine a better way to get ready for the holidays.