The Winston Salem Symphony kicked off its year-long search for a new music director with an exciting performance led by the young Serbian-American conductor Vladimir Kulenovic (cou-LEN-o-vich), currently the music director of the Lake Forest Symphony (IL) and in great demand around the globe as a guest conductor. The Stevens Center main floor was full of excited music-lovers although the balcony, despite superior acoustics, was sparsely populated. From the start, with a highly nuanced performance of the “Star Spangled Banner,” Maestro Kulenovic shrewdly sought to identify himself as different from the “business-as-usual” conductor. Tall and slender, he was dressed in black on black in a double vented suit. Speaking candidly and wittingly, he appealed to the audience’s sense of patriotism (he was celebrating the 10th anniversary of his naturalization as a U.S. citizen) and civic pride in referring to the opening work on the program as a manifestation of the Second Amendment.

The work in question, the Overture to Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, is one of Weber’s most charming works, one of half a dozen overtures and several concertos to make it into the popular orchestral repertory. Der Freischütz (The Marksman) is a Singspiel (operetta) centering around the love of the peasant Max for the noblewoman Agatha and the extraordinary opportunity to plead his case by distinguishing himself as a marksman.

The musicians of the orchestra responded enthusiastically to the melodrama of the music and the goading of the conductor. The opening pianissimo was splendid, ushering in a stately horn quartet, and once the excitement of the syncopating Molto Vivace had abated, a lovely clarinet solo by Anthony Taylor followed. This was an excellent opener, well-played and conducted with attention to detail in a larger-than-life style befitting the fairy-tale nature of the music.

Julian Schwarz is a familiar name to Triad musicians, thanks to his frequent appearances as a chamber musician and cello soloist at the Eastern Music Festival for the last half dozen years. Playing the Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat by Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Schwarz was impressive, exhibiting a beautifully expressive tone, nearly flawless intonation, and mustering up the drama this emotional work demands as it carries Shostakovich’s plea for individuality in the epoch of Stalinist oppression. Conductor and soloist worked hand in glove throughout the concerto, with interwoven musical commentary from principal horn player Robert Campbell, the only brass instrument in this gripping concerto. The lengthy and dramatic cadenza that links the soulful second movement to the lusty, weaving, folk-like last movement was a high point of the performance.

After a lengthy intermission the guest conductor launched the orchestra into a dramatic interpretation of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90, arguably the most intimate and introspective of his four symphonies. Bouncing from forte to forte with gestures best described as ballistic, Kulenovic led the orchestra from peak to craggy peak of this masterpiece with a sense of desperation I had not encountered before in this work. It was the tender moments such as the Poco Allegretto (third movement), with its pianissimo leggiero [very soft and light] and mezza voce [half voice], that lost their intimacy. And the poignant soft ending of the last movement, which the maestro explained so well, seemed to lose the rapport with the theme that Brahms had borrowed from his mentor, Robert Schumann.

When I asked a couple of colleagues from the orchestra about the larger-than-life gestures emanating from the podium, they said they found it very exciting. And exciting it was, even if the phrasing was more monolithic than sculpted and the dynamics were less than subtle. The Symphony Fathers have set a high bar by inviting such an energetic and dynamic musician as the lead-off candidate in what will surely be a dazzling season. There is a repeat performance of this concert Tuesday night, October 16. See the sidebar for details.