Blessed by perfect fall weather, a capacity crowd filled Keppel Auditorium at Catawba College in Salisbury for the first concert of the season offered by the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra. Well before the start time of 7:30, conductor David Hagy gave a talk to the early comers about the three pieces to be performed. In conjunction with the three pages of small type of notes in the program, there was an abundance of information about the music. The talk was especially a good idea, because who can read the program after the lights go dim, and when you’re paying attention to the musicians? (I find programs most useful to review after concerts.) Hagy was a highly-animated fellow, bounding across the stage with considerable velocity. This was quite handy, since it allowed him to exit the stage and get back on for a second bow before the applause ebbed. Those of us who saunter off and back on stage get far fewer curtain calls. All three of the pieces were third works by the “three Bs”; J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (“Emperor”), Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55, (“Eroica”).

Just before the Bach opened the concert, Hagy spoke briefly, and was joined by Myelita Melton, the afternoon host of WDAV. All the classical music lovers in the region from Charlotte to Winston-Salem and beyond owe a real debt of gratitude to WDAV as a pillar of culture. Salisbury is a hot spot for art and music, largely due to the Salisbury Symphony and chamber musicians, as well as theatre groups.

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is a curious piece, with strings only, and in a rather novel instrumentation of three parts each of violin, viola, and cello, plus a bass line and “cembalo.” The keyboard part in this performance, as is so often the case, was filled with an electric keyboard, but its volume was set so low that neither I nor my friend accompanying me could hear it. Hagy had the strings divided into three equal parts, one to the right, one to the left, and one center. This was a good arrangement to get some antiphonal effects. The balance between the three parts was a bit of a problem, with the first group frequently dominating, even in sections where the attention should have shifted back and forth. However, despite that, the performance was quite credible, with good intonation and convincing interpretation. In a score like this, typical of Baroque music, Bach does not specify phrasing, rubato, or dynamics, leaving much to the performer to decide. In fact, the entire second movement, except for two chords, is improvised, done this evening with a riff from the concertmaster.

The quality of the performance in general was quite fine, and certainly worth attending and supporting. There is one important matter that is generally true, that is one of the major distinctions between professional and community orchestras. That is, that professional orchestras have a considerably more flexible beat, what we call “rubato” in the trade, especially in the Romantic era onwards, but even in Baroque performances. This is a challenge to do in community groups, since the players need to stick together – not an easy feat. The result is that the musical expression and depth of feeling with the pros can be considerably greater. Hagy generally tended to a straight tempo, which provided a cleaner, more coherent performance with the forces at hand. He knew what he was doing, but it is tempting to wonder if greater freedom of the beat could be done.

Next up was Symphony No. 3 of Brahms, termed “Eroica” by Hans Richter, its first conductor. This is the shortest of his four symphonies – quite a contrast to the very long, original Beethoven’s “Eroica.” It is also the least performed of the four. I heard via the grapevine while studying conducting, (a grapevine winding up to the likes of Eugene Ormandy) that this is because all three movements end softly. Conductors like the big drama of loud splashy finales, and so do audiences. Marketing matters when you need to sell tickets, and everyone knows when you add canon and elephants, people show up. (Hence, “1812 Overture” and Aida.) This symphony has plenty of action for the brass and lots of fast high passages for the first fiddles, but simply by ending softly four times, it gives a relaxed flavor to the whole piece. This performance was up-tempo and energetic, and quite effective. The horns in particular were strong, as well as the long-suffering trombones, for whom this was the only chance to play tonight.

Evidently, the audience was not entirely familiar with the piece, and had forgotten some of the comments about the endings; after the final movement concluded, Hagy stopped beating and the audience neglected to clap! Finally, he turned around and grinned, and the audience caught on.

After intermission, we heard Beethoven’s “Eroica.” Once again, this was an up-tempo interpretation, except for the Scherzo which was about average in speed. Sometimes it seemed that during some passages, especially in the second movement which is a funeral march, a slower pace (with rubato) would have been preferable, but everybody’s a critic, aren’t they? One thing to listen for in the first movement is the early horn entrance before the recapitulation. This is a bit of a joke in the score; a couple of measures before the first theme is set to come in (loud) after a soft ending of the development, for no particular reason the first horn toots the theme all by itself – as if the poor fellow had lost count of his rests. Unfortunately, our hornist tonight played this almost inaudibly, perhaps fearing sounding like a dummy, and the joke was lost. The horns made up for this in the Scherzo’s big horn call.

This was my first experience of hearing the Salisbury Symphony, and it was a most positive experience, much appreciated by the large crowd. This organization is vital to the cultural life of this community, and much valued in these parts. The auditorium at Catawba College is comfortable, visually impressive, and sounds fine. I look forward to more concerts to come.