“Viva Roma!” was the theme chosen by Robert Moody, Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony, for the final concerts of 2005-6. This was the 59th season for the orchestra and the first for its new leader. In the course of engaging pre- and post-concert talks with music lovers, the conductor said he likes to program works that have a common thread. The connection between Mendelssohn’s beloved “Italian” Symphony and the vivid “Pines of Rome” of Respighi is obvious. Samuel Barber’s Second Essay, Op. 17, and the world-premiere performances of “Rusty Air in Carolina” by Mason Bates, a rising star among American composers, are linked in that both composers won the highly sought Prix de Rome. Bates said that his residence during his stay in Rome was on the hill of the Janiculum, the pines of which are portrayed in the Respighi tone poem. This review is of the May 21 concert in Stevens Center.

Improved communication between Moody and his musicians since the first gala concert of the season was immediately apparent in the taut, unified playing of Samuel Barber’s Second Essay. Individual playing was crisp, and color and dynamics were nuanced as the solo flute handed the memorable theme to the bass clarinet before it spread throughout the strings. The orchestra has always had a solid horn section, led by Frederick Bergstone, but they have seldom sounded as brilliant as when the five players took up the theme, playing as one. Massie Johnson’s alert timpani playing served as an agent provacateur, marking the beginning of the brilliantly worked-out fugue that ends the work.

Well-sprung attacks, airy textures, and fleet tempos were perfect for the quicksilver Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 (“Italian”), of Mendelssohn. This was a joy-filled performance. The high level of the orchestra players’ musicianship was evident in their flawless realization of the scherzo at an unusually fast clip.

A major function of a music director is the cultivation of contemporary composers, not just by going through the motions, commissioning short opening works that will never leave the shelf again, but by a long term commitment to composers in whom the conductor passionately believes. Moody met the Virginia-born Mason Bates at Brevard when the then-choral conductor was much taken by the teenager’s piece for chorus. Later, as conductor of the Evansville Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Moody commissioned Bates’ first published work. To celebrate taking over the Winston-Salem orchestra, Moody, a South Carolina native, wanted Bates to compose a major work that drew upon their shared Southern roots and “blended new technology” with orchestral instruments.

Bates’ recollections of the insect sounds during the course of a warm Southern summer night from dusk to dawn inspired his “Rusty Air in Carolina.” Using digital technology – a laptop and an electronic drum pad with 16 sub-pads – the composer summoned up the sounds of katydids, crickets, and cicadas (widely called locusts in the South) as elements to “bring the white noise of the Southern summer night” to pair with what he calls “fluorescent orchestral textures.” The four continuously played sections are “Nan’s Porch,” “Katydid Country,” “Southern Midnight,” and “Southern Dawn.” The first two sections and the last focus on contrasts of texture and color. The opening section uses three “orchestral clouds,” each with different harmony, register, and orchestration. The composer makes extensive and inventive use of muted brass. Flutter-tonguing of both flutes and trumpets is part of the mix. Electronic nature sounds are used in all but the third section, which alone gives the strings full, long-lined melodies. Bird calls signal the approaching dawn with buzzing cicadas that flavor the work’s resplendent conclusion.

Moody and his orchestra gave their all to the performance, playing with great subtlety and precise intonation so essential for Bates’ harmonics and timbres. The composer was stationed near the orchestral piano, using his electronics to create waves of sound or staccato percussive effects. Speakers scattered throughout the orchestra projected the nature sounds clearly with no hint of degradation of sound. Performances of many new works receive barely polite audience applause, but Bates was recalled enthusiastically and, after the concert, was peppered with praise and questions that reflected fully engaged listeners. This was the second of three premiere performances of the work in Winston-Salem.

Stevens Center is the perfect venue for a spectacular performance of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” The lower mezzanine fire exits are shallow landings that are ideal for placing the off-stage brass needed to create the surround-sound effect of the finale, with its antiphonal blasts. All the tight ensemble playing, hair-trigger attacks, and care for kaleidoscopic orchestral colors already described were present in the performance of this gleaming tone poem. Moody and his players pulled out all the stops. Indeed, the brass briefly covered the strings during the fiery finale. But it was great fun. Risk-free Respighi would not be worth hearing.

Before the concert, retiring violinist Minnie Lou Raper was warmly honored for her 56 years with the Winston-Salem Symphony. Her extensive achievements, both as a teacher and a mentor in the field of music education, are a rich legacy for the Piedmont.