Coping with crisisThe Winston-Salem Symphony continued their Classics concerts for the 2020-21 season with a highly successful program titled “American Landscapes.” Timothy Redmond, the orchestra’s music director, conducted the concert in the Stevens Center of the UNC School of the Arts. When socially distanced audiences are no longer needed, one hopes that livestreamed concerts such as this one will take their place as part of the future of classical music.

The program opened with a quintessential American masterpiece: Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. The piece is redolent with the American spirit, from the subdued pastoral tones of the opening and closing, to the lively syncopations and the variations on “Simple Gifts.” It also carries connection with one of the great American innovators of the 20th century, Martha Graham, who having co-commissioned Copland to compose a dance piece with “an American theme,” danced the lead role of the Wife at the premiere in 1944.

Heard here was the suite in the version for 13 instruments. It carried a strong atmosphere of stillness and reflection at the beginning. The open lines were phrased in supple fashion by the solo winds. The following energetic section had strong, sharp rhythm. Gentle lyricism followed in the inner-feeling music for the Bride and her Intended. The transition to the revivalist music was excellent; the wind phrasing continued to stand out, as did the expressive string lines. Following another effective transition, the syncopations were clean and precise.

The variations on “Simple Gifts” are a highlight of the piece and were played with lovely lyricism and more sharp rhythms. The flowing ending, as the Bride takes her place in the community, faded in a lovely hush carried by the clarinet.

This writer has always gravitated towards the full orchestra version of the piece, made by Copland shortly after the premiere of the dance work. However, this original conception, with its lean open lines and its clarity, as well as this performance of the piece, were fully as effective and expressive as the lusher orchestral arrangement. It is worth noting that for the original dance version, Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

This fine beginning was followed by a break for a stage reset, an intermission one could say. One would look forward to this being done a bit more gracefully than here, where the screen went still for something over five minutes. If not an interview of some kind for online viewers, then at least an attractive still picture (perhaps, in the theme of the concert, a painting by Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell) would have been appealing.*

When the performance resumed, it was of a piece called In Memory – H.H.L. by Dan Locklair who is composer-in-residence and professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, perhaps five miles up the road from where the concert was taking place. Locklair’s works span a wide variety of genres and have been performed in the U.S. and many countries. Many of his works have been commissioned – a significant achievement for a composer – and they are available on numerous commercial labels such as Koch, Albany, and Naxos.

This piece of about seven minutes duration, in traditional tonal language, was played here by a string orchestra of about twenty. Locklair introduced the work and described how it was written in response to the death of his mother in 2005. It opened, not surprisingly, in a somber minor mode. There were long, flowing lines, played with fine phrasing by the orchestra. Allusions to the hymn “Jesus Loves Me” and the Amen cadence enhanced the religious or reflective nature of the piece, where the quieter moments were also suggestive of the Copland music heard previously. It is a touching emotional tribute which Locklair said was meant to express gratitude along with remembrance. The orchestra brought a good deal of expressivity to the performance.

The final work on the program, introduced with enthusiastic and informative commentary by Redmond, the conductor, was the Serenade for Strings, Op. 22, by Antonín Dvořák. It is a work of gracious charm, vibrant energy, and luscious melody.

It also rendered the title of the concert something of a misnomer. Dvořák spent several years in the United States, during which he famously predicted that indigenous American music, including that of African-Americans, was the path of the future (that turned out to be prescient!). The Serenade, however, was written 17 years before Dvořák came to the U.S.; it bears no direct connection to that later period of his life, nor, in its Slavic dance quality, to some of the themes heard in the New World Symphony, often believed to suggest African-American spirituals.

But musically speaking, no matter. This lovely work was given an equally loving performance by the Winston-Salem Symphony strings. The first movement had a gentle, tender beginning. There was a nice dance quality to the second theme, with a strong folk element that was well-carried. The return of the first theme almost floated back into hearing.

The second movement Tempo di Valse carried a most appealing lilting, swaying feeling. The bouncy middle section was followed by more lyricism, all given fine expression. The last two chords impressed with strong, tight declamation. The third movement Scherzo was lively. One wished it would be softer, more fleet and scurrying in the rapid passages – a point which also arose in the last movement. After a strong peak there was again good lyrical contrast. The return of the contrasting melody was introduced with an excellent rubato.

And so it went, too, in the thoughtful slow movement, with its beautiful hushed ending, and in the high-spirited last movement with its exquisite return to the opening theme of the first movement, the piece brought full circle and then ending exuberantly. It was an exciting conclusion to a very fine concert.

*The presenter explains that the break enabled correction of an unexpected audio/video discrepancy, after which the livestream resumed with a conversation between Redmond and composer Locklair, who introduced his work.