The Salisbury Symphony Orchestra opened its 40th season on Saturday, September 30th with a concert at Keppel Auditorium on the Catawba College Campus under the baton of Music Director David Haggy.

Founded 40 years ago, the Salisbury Symphony was the inspiration of Dr. Samuel E. Duncan, Jr., then-president of Livingstone College, and Dr. Donald C. Dearborn, then-president of Catawba College. Through their vision, the Salisbury Symphony and its educational programs were born. To help celebrate the 40th anniversary, members of the Duncan and Dearborn families were on hand to offer words of thanks and praise to the orchestra and community. The symphony presented plaques to the colleges’ current presidents, which will be displayed their respective auditoriums. Also on hand for the celebration were special guests from Salisbury’s sister city, Salisbury, England, including the mayor and city council members.

The program opened with Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1750-1927). Beethoven, who wrote only one opera, Fidelio, was noted for constantly revising his works and this opera was no exception. He wrote four different overtures, finally settling on the one now known as “The Overture to Fidelio.” Of the four, Leonore Overture No. 3 is played most frequently on the concert stage. Beethoven did not write anything easy, and this piece is no exception. It opens quietly with the orchestra playing, in unison, a descending scale while getting even softer. This passage leaves all of the instruments quite exposed, and the slightest miscalculation is evident. The orchestra’s performance here was stunningly crystal clear, and it only got better, with the orchestra tackling the allegro and presto movements without batting an eyelash. Principal trumpeter, Greg Hall, played the offstage trumpet calls with great facility and clarity.

Then followed what, to me, was the highlight of the concert: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major, K. 364, for Violin and Viola. A musical genre that was in vogue during the latter part of the 18th century, the sinfonia concertante is essentially a concerto for multiple soloists and orchestra. In three movements, the slow second movement is Mozart’s genius at its best. Written in C minor, it is a lament over his mother’s death, which had occurred shortly before he composed this work. Violin soloist, Jacqui Carrasco, who teaches at Wake Forest University, and viola soloist, Scott  Rawls, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, performed as if they had been playing this work together since early childhood, both playing in ensemble or passing themes back and forth with ease. Their tones both complemented and contrasted each other, and had extraordinary lushness and beauty. The orchestra, reduced in size, provided excellent collaboration with the soloists. Of performances that I have previously heard, including those by internationally known orchestras and soloists, none, in my opinion, can compare with this one. The soloists and orchestra played with passion, pathos, and playfulness that I have not witnessed in other readings of this piece.

The second half of the program began with the North Carolina premiere of Made in America by the American composer Joan Tower (b. 1938). Commissioned by a consortium of 65 small-budget orchestras, including at least one from each of the 50 states, and with support from Ford Motor Company, the work is based on themes from American the Beautiful. Starting with the opening theme of this song, the piece progresses to become more and more complex and is somewhat reminiscent of an automobile assembly line, until the tune itself is almost overpowered. In the end, though, it does survive. Again, the orchestra was up to the challenge, switching tempi from slow to fast, and back again, without missing a beat, and changing dynamics on a dime. In its first year and a half of life, Made in America will have received more than 80 performances in all 50 states. We can only hope that it continues to be heard after that, it is such a wonderful piece, and a fine tribute to all things American.

The program closed with Samuel Barber’s (1910-1981) First Symphony, Op. 9, in One Movement. To a 20th century composer, the word “symphony” could mean almost anything. Barber’s roots, however, lay in the past, and he structured his first symphony along more classical lines – that is, in four distinct sections – although played together in this work as one movement. It is based on three themes which carry through the entire piece. The symphony is neo-romantic in style, with full, lush passages and beautiful soaring melodies interspersed with moments of great tension. Here, the orchestra again proved it’s worth, presenting a very fine reading of this difficult work.

While I cannot speak to all 40 seasons of the Salisbury Symphony, I can address the last twenty, and what a difference from 1986! I can only imagine what the next forty years will bring. The members of the orchestra, Maestro David Hagy, and the citizens of Salisbury and Rowan County are all to be congratulated on a fine job and a fine performance.