From several points of view, it was ironic that symphonies by Mahler and Schumann were programmed by Music Director Peter Perret for the Winston-Salem Symphony’s November 25 Stevens Center concert. Mahler was masterful as a conductor and as an orchestrator of his own compositions, while Schumann was notorious for his thick instrumental textures. Following Mahler’s pellucid Symphony No. 4 with the turgid “Rhenish” Symphony of Schumann did the latter no favors. In addition, among musicological purists, Mahler is infamous for his extensive re-orchestrations of Schumann symphonies. Over the years, many conductors have felt the need to tweak and touch up Schumann’s scores in order to clarify textures.

A Triangle conductor in the audience observed that the best way fully to appreciate Mahler’s symphonies is to hear them in live concert! Among the nine completed symphonies, the Fourth, in G, is the shortest as well as the happiest. Much of the score is like diaphanous chamber music. Happily, Stevens Center is a very sympathetic hall for strings. Perret announced that the flu had hit the orchestra hard, short staffing several sections including the cellos, which were reduced to only six players. The flutes and the percussion section perfectly brought off the special blend of chirping flute rhythm and sleigh bells in the first and last movements. A chair beside Concertmistress Corine Brower held a second violin tuned a whole tone higher. In the second movement she played both violins alternately. Mahler wanted a more strident sound from the second violin. The score directs it to be played “like a fiddle” in order to suggest a coarse sort of country violin. Perret chose an apt tempo for seemingly timeless slow movement, in which the orchestra glowed. Splendid horns and trumpets led to the last movement, in which soprano Marilyn Taylor ideally conveyed the simplicity Mahler wanted in the eight stanzas of folk poetry that express a child’s view of heaven. The glowing English horn solo in the last movement was played by Mark Biggam, who had only a few hours notice to replace another flu victim. After a richly deserved, prolonged ovation for the orchestra and Taylor, the soprano sang an a cappella song of farewell to Perret. It sounded Celtic and after it ended, her spoken words seemed to be “may you get into heaven an half hour before the Devil gets your name.”

At intermission, Taylor was in the lobby to autograph her wonderful Albany CD, Return: Art Songs from Carolina , which was given a glowing review by CVNC . Perret ought to be praised for using first-class local N.C. artists and for finding so many rising talents among young musicians. The N.C. School of the Arts seems to be bursting at the seams with virtuosi.

Perret led a good standard interpretation of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. He did all he could to balance and clear up the lines in the first movement, but the crystalline Mahler was too fresh in the ear. The Ländler qualities of the scherzo were well brought out. Highlights of the slow third movement were the melodic clarinet duet, played by James Kayln and Ron Rudkin, and the rich and graceful chain of thirds played by the burnished violas. Trombonists Brian French, Gregory Dailey, and Erik Salzwedel were in fine form in the fourth movement’s evocation of Cologne’s Cathedral as well as in the joyous finale.

Principal timpanist Massie Johnson’s pre-concert lectures are always worth attending. He studied with long-time New York Philharmonic principal timpanist Saul Goodman, who had played under Toscanini. On this occasion he related a Mahler story he had heard from the 80-something year-old predecessor and teacher of Goodman, Alfred Friese, who had played under Mahler. Too few patrons bother to attend the lectures in the Piedmont Club, across the street from Stevens Center. When they were given upstairs in Stevens Center, attendance was often standing room only, highly suggestive of the need to move them back.

Edited 12/12/03.