Winston-Salem Symphony Music Director Search: A Tight Finish?
by William Thomas Walker
The last of five candidates to succeed Peter Perret as Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony recently conducted his three concerts. Michael Butterman cut a youthful appearance as he directed the February 6 matinee performance in the Stevens Center. The program, which ranged from a rhythmically complex 20th-century work to one of the greatest Classical piano concertos to a pinnacle of the Romantic repertory, gave the maximum scope for testing a conductor's mettle. A pretty full house was on hand to witness the running of the gauntlet.
Alberto Ginastera's Ballet Suite from Estancia has firmly entered the orchestral repertory; CVNC has reviewed it at least three times within the past five years in the central Piedmont. This four-movement Suite is similar in spirit to Copland's Rodeo, but instead of evoking American cowboy culture, Ginastera depicts a day in the life of an Argentine gaucho (horseman), suggesting the sound of his guitar. The Suite uses characteristic dance rhythms such as the malambo, a vigorous, competitive dance that builds in intensity until only one dancer remains standing. Its loud and driving irregular meters dominate the first and last movements, "Land Workers" and "Final Dance, Malambo." The second movement, "Wheat Dance," is a complete contrast, lovely and pastoral, with a delightful flute melody over gentle pizzicato strings. This gave several orchestra players fine limelight. Kathryn Levy, flute, phrased with eloquent simplicity, and Concertmistress Corrine Brouwer played a sweet-toned solo. While the horn section had a great showing all evening, the muted horns in this movement were especially golden in tone. During his pre-concert lecture, Principal Timpanist Massie Johnson drew attention to the rare use of the smallest of the five-member timpani family, an instrument 20" in diameter. Its unique timbre managed to stand out in the very loud finale. Butterman kept tight reins on this often-raucous work, steering its complex rhythms with deceptive ease.
Guest pianist Awadagin Pratt gave a masterful interpretation of Beethoven's superb Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58. His phrasing and tempos were completely convincing. The music was allowed to breathe, and the silences within the score were allowed to register completely. Butterman provided a perfectly balanced orchestral accompaniment that fit his soloist like a spandex glove. All sections of the orchestra played at the top of their form. A brief section in the first movement for paired horns, played by Frederick Bergstone and Robert Campbell, was breathtaking and emblematic of the high level of technique of this orchestra. Pratt ought to be a top candidate for any local series. His musicianship is deep and he has no want of technique. (He shares with André Watts a tendency to stamp his foot loudly in particularly stirring passages.) In contrast to his appearance with the NC Symphony a few seasons ago, he no longer uses a low chair like Glenn Gould.
Butterman ended the concert with a solid and fairly traditional interpretation of Brahms' Fourth Symphony. Orchestral textures were clear and well balanced and the tempos were sensible. I was disappointed that the first extended scoring for the timpani in the first movement was not given greater emphasis; it was there but not given the stress that my favorite interpreters, such as Bruno Walter or Rudolf Kempe, have elicited on recordings, not to mention most of the live performances that I have heard. This personal obsession aside, it was a satisfying performance. Before starting the Symphony, Butterman had sections of the orchestra play key elements from movements I, III, and IV separately, followed by the full orchestration.
Butterman created a good impression during the wide-ranging question-and-answer session following the concert. Aspects of programming, community outreach, audience building, and fund-raising were touched upon. Like most of the other candidates, he has a strong background in choral music and showed a desire to break out of the confines of alternating the Requiems of Brahms and Verdi, in order to explore the many excellent shorter works that could share a billing. All the candidates spoke about the music from the stage. Butterman said he intended his detailed comments on the Brahms Symphony to serve as an example of a way to break down some of the perceived barriers new audience members find when attending classical concerts.