The Winston-Salem Symphony opened the New Year with the third candidate to audition for the position of music director leading a well-attended concert at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. Without any further reference to an epiphany, there was a distinct aura of welcome for Robert Franz, who left the region over two decades ago, after studies at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and professional apprenticeships with local artistic entities, including the W-S Symphony, where he served as director of education and assistant conductor. On one memorable occasion, he even played principal oboe, stepping in to replace the ailing John Ellis in no-less-a-piece than Ravel’s devilish “Tombeau de Couperin!” What was most moving about the concert Sunday afternoon was the orchestra’s welcome to their returning colleague and the audience’s recognition of this bond.

Indeed, this would be only sentimentalism were it not for the fact that Franz is an outstanding musician with profound intelligence. In the mind of this reviewer, the candidacy of Franz for the position of music director raises the bar significantly.

The concert began, as with the earlier candidates, with the only work they were allowed to choose themselves, in this case the Three Dance Episodes from On the Town by Leonard Bernstein, whose centenary we celebrate this season. The three excerpts from the musical last only 11 minutes but are packed with emotion and jazzy rhythms. In the first episode, we met the new Franz – flexible and supple, almost breaking into dance steps. The muted trumpet of Anita Cirba over the lower woodwinds and horns was evocative and created an appropriate atmosphere of loneliness in the second episode. The longer third episode, “Times Square: 1944,” was packed with a multitude of tempos and styles from blues to bouncy. The large audience responded with enthusiasm to this distinctly American sound.

Franz was joined on stage by the American violinist Dovid Friedlander for a stunning performance of Serge Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op. 19. This is a dreamy concerto, full of surprising colors and violinistic effects and unusual orchestrations. Prokofiev was a consummate pianist and, even when writing for orchestra, was never far from using a pianistic palette. As a result, it is easy for the orchestra to cover some of the delicately-nuanced solo passages, which happened several times during the performance. (I recall attending a rehearsal in Geneva, Switzerland, where the legendary violinist Isaac Stern was rehearsing this same Prokofiev concerto and after ten minutes asked the conductor to cut some of the cellos, and ten minutes later, some of the violas, and again, some of the violins, growling, “I can’t be heard over such a large orchestra!”)

Friedlander is an outstanding soloist with a sweet tone and vigorous technique which he put to good use in the brilliant Scherzo. It is a charming concerto with a circular structure (the last movement recalls the start of the first); one wishes it were performed more often. In fact, we learned in the post-performance Q&A session that this was the first performance for both the soloist and the conductor!

Sergei Rachmaninoff was also an outstanding pianist, but was equally at home as a composer of symphonies (three) and concertos (four plus) as well as a large number of works for solo piano. The search committee of the W-S Symphony chose the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, as the large work on this program. Maestro Franz rose to the occasion, guiding the huge forces through the three movements to the inexorable ending involving the “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) theme so dear to Rachmaninoff. Although there were occasional imperfections – attacks not perfectly aligned, balance occasionally skewed towards brass – this was a remarkable performance of a too-seldom-heard masterpiece. Lovely solos (Eileen Young on alto sax, gorgeous vibrato of the English horn of Cara Fish, stately French horn of Robert Campbell) as well as complicated rubatos and twisted rhythms in the second movement of the piece, with its delicate fragile ending, couldn’t have prepared us for the powerful third movement with oboe fanfares leading to a Spanish sounding “Witch’s Sabbath,” invoking Hector Berlioz. All three movements were masterfully conducted and provoked a spontaneous and well-deserved standing ovation.

The programwill repeat on Tuesday evening. See our sidebar for details.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer was the music director of the W-S Symphony during the time Franz was employed by same.