Concert number two of six scheduled in the current search for a new music director of the Winston-Salem Symphony takes place this weekend in the Stevens Center, featuring Paul Haas, about whom little is revealed by the biographical materials provided other than the two orchestras he is involved with currently, one in Northwestern Arkansas and the other in Thunder Bay (Canada). The program, partially chosen by the candidate and partially by the search committee was fascinating, especially the recent work by Jessie Montgomery and the soloist Awadagin Pratt.

I have long been a fan of the Coriolan Overture, Opus 62, of Beethoven and with the decomposition of the heroic theme as the titular hero, a Roman General, yields to the pleas of both wife and mother to not attack Rome in its decadence – which leads him to end his own life.

Our guest conductor of the evening fulfilled the destiny of the overture without artifice, but also without feeling the tremendous tragedy endured by the hero. Although the orchestra’s strings have rarely sounded so powerful as in the tautly sustained middle ‘C’s that create the tension throughout the work, the rest of the overture didn’t sustain the tension between filial devotion and patriotism. In a monolithic way, the music was all loud or all soft with very little intermingling.

The second piece on the program, “Anthem,” by Maestro Haas, was not in the program but was announced from the podium after the winds and brass had cleared the stage. It is a short work (maybe six minutes) in a recurring gentle three-beat meter, played by the violins (both sections) and cellos (while the violas and basses listened patiently). A lone clarinet sat at the back of the stage and played a peaceful melody which gradually added a note in a short scale motion. Another clarinet intoned from the darkened hall followed by an oboe, equally soft, followed by a flute, also playing the same notes quietly and gently, only a vibrato distinguishing the flute from the other instruments. And as quietly and as gently as it began, the anthem came to an end. The audience applauded and my wife sighed and murmured that it was like the end of her meditation class. Indeed, it was a peaceful interlude!

With the grand piano now in place in front of the entire string section, the much admired pianist Awadagin Pratt took his place at center stage to play Rounds for Solo Piano and String Orchestra, a piece composed this year by Jessie Montgomery (born in 1981). Musically, a “round” is a song or a tune which has several parts and is played or sung by several people sequentially, starting the first part when the preceding singer has gotten to the second part, and sequentially until all the singers are involved.  (Popular examples are “Three Blind Mice” and “Frère Jacques.”) This was a powerful piece, making vigorous use of arpeggios, clusters (a handful of notes close to each other played or struck on the piano) at once, usually for rhythmic effect.

The common musical form, “rondo” is a longer form loosely derived from the idea of a “round” but usually the entire tune is played repeatedly several times in alternation with one or more similar tunes during the movement, creating a sense of unity. Montgomery uses the rondo form extensively and within each iteration of the theme is another round: rounds within rounds, almost like the idea behind “fractals,” which also seem to fascinate her! And the other fascinating anchor is the poetry of T. S. Eliot, in particular the passage from “Burnt Norton,” the first poem of Four Quartets (1941): “…still point of the turning world.”

The Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 is one of the cherished masterworks of the 20th century, a staple of the symphonic repertory everywhere. The performance directed by Maestro Haas was clean, correct and well balanced. The orchestra was attentive. The brass stood out for their balance and strength. Principal flutist, Kathryn Levy, had some lovely solos as did principal horn-player, Robert Campbell.

Haas has a very dynamic conducting technique consisting of energetic and forceful angular gestures supported by legs akimbo, straddling the entire podium at times. Whatever the source of the technique, I have to admit that they worked: this is a strong candidate and it was a strong performance.

This performance repeats Sunday, October 9. See our sidebar for details.