The Salisbury Symphony Orchestra presented its first Masterworks Concert of the 2008-2009 season in Keppel Auditorium on the campus of Catawba College. Music Director David Hagy presented a blockbuster program featuring works that were written in the 20th century, but are timeless in meaning, each exploring the composers’ views of humanity.

The concert was dedicated to the honor of Robert Pruehsner, an indefatigable Symphony Board member and volunteer, who has devoted thousands of hours to the advancement of the Salisbury Symphony and its mission.

The program opened with Aaron Copland’s (1900-1990) “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Written for brass and percussion, it was performed in “surround sound,” with the percussion and low brass at the back of the stage, the horns in front of the proscenium, and trumpets in the balcony. This arrangement added to the great triumph of mankind that this work celebrates, and was played exquisitely.

While the final chord of the fanfare was still being played, the strings start the ethereal chord of the opening of Charles Ives’ (1874-1954) “The Unanswered Question,” playing so softly that you could hardly touch the sound with your hands. The moment of transition from the bright brass to the barely audible strings was stunning, and almost like a new birth. The strings continued in this manner throughout the entire piece, interrupted seven times by the solo trumpet asking “The Perennial Question of Existence,” alternating with a series of woodwind phrases that progressively become louder and more dissonant, “The Invisible Answer.” Of course, there is no answer, only silence in the end. Again, the orchestra performed this very philosophical work with great depth and shimmering beauty.

The Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is in a similar vein. The last major work of Elgar’s life, it is restrained and introspective, filled with sadness and regret. Elgar, himself, described its meaning as, “A man’s attitude to life.” The cello soloist was Anne Sellitti, who has been a member of the Salisbury Symphony since 1988, and is currently its principal cellist. Ms. Sellitti, who holds bachelors and masters degrees in cello performance, also plays with the Winston-Salem Symphony and the Greensboro Symphony, in addition to other musical organizations.

Her performance of Elgar’s concerto was like the work itself: mournful, contemplative, lyrical and nostalgic, without being maudlin and overemotional. Her beauty of tone and phrasing contributed to the overall splendor of the performance, with the orchestra providing expert and sensitive collaboration. 

The concert concluded with Symphony No. 3 by Aaron Copland, which brought us full circle emotionally, philosophically, and thematically. The symphony is in four large movements: a hymnal opening, a balletic scherzo, an andantino of contrasted moods, and a triumphant finale. It is in this last movement that “Fanfare for a Common Man” is reprised, although there are hints of the theme in the first movement. Calling for one of the largest orchestras the Salisbury Symphony has had in years (84 players), this was also one of the most challenging works that they have tackled. Their playing was quiet and shimmering, agitated and tense, dancing and energetic, and lofty and grandiloquent, a fine tribute to humanity. The presentation of this symphony and of this concert was a major achievement for the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra and all of its members, and one in which they can be justifiably proud.