Hickory, North Carolina has a hidden treasure that sparkled Saturday night on the stage of the P. E. Monroe Auditorium on the Lenoir-Rhyne University campus. I am referring to the excellent Western Piedmont Symphony which serves the region with 70+ musicians under the experienced leadership of the savvy musician and conductor, John Gordon Ross, now in his 25th season as Music Director. A disappointingly small audience was present in the newly refurbished auditorium to show its appreciation for a delightful program and a promising piano soloist, Solomon Eichner, currently in residence in Columbia, SC.

The program opened with one of the lesser known works of the brilliant Italian composer of the early 20th century, Ottorino Respighi, whose study with Nicolai Rimski-Korsakov during a year spent in Imperial Russia is evidenced by the superb orchestration of every work he composed. Although best known for his three suites, Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals, with their huge panoplies of instruments both modern and antique, Trittico Botticelliana is a more intimate work set for a compact section of wind soloists, harp, piano, percussion and strings. The reason for this restrained instrumentation may be found in the subject matter of the triptych – three exquisite (and very famous) paintings by Sandro Botticelli –  Primavera (Spring), the Adoration of the Magi and the Birth of Venus.

The entire orchestra, from the shimmering strings in complex and multiple meters to the lugubrious “Veni Immanuel” (Oh come, Emmanuel), was elegant, clean and well disciplined. Principal flute, Laura Stevens had a delicious tone and, with Paige West-Smith, showed impeccable intonation in their second movement double octave duet. A slight quibble with the program notes – Botticelli shows the lovely nude Venus landing on the shore of Cyprus in a large scallop shell – clearly not an oyster shell!

The next work on the program, Maurice Ravel’s iconic and challenging Le Tombeau de Couperin, was a tribute to friends fallen in the 1914-1917 World War and to the great French Baroque composer, Louis Couperin. Guest musician John Hammarback, (substituting for the absent principal oboe, Anna Morris) played one of the most lyrical and streamlined solos I have ever heard in the first movement (“Prélude”). Again, the clean precision and elegant articulation throughout the four movements made this an exceptional performance.

After intermission, a third composer whose name also begins with “R” filled the stage and minds of audience and musicians alike – Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose third Piano Concerto in D minor, Opus 30 was performed by the American pianist, Eichner. There is no doubt that Eichner possesses the ample technique to play this well known masterpiece. On the large Bösendorfer piano, he drew powerful and deep dark tones that befit the larger moments of the concerto to a “T”. The pianist also had some of the softest pianissimi, just barely audible above the orchestra, but impressive.

However, I had problems with the passages between the climaxes; their direction and meaning seemed lost in the context of this, the longest of the composer’s four concerti. For example, the second theme of the first movement begins with a staccato dialogue between soloist and orchestra, but emerged more argumentative and heavy-handed in the solo part than one expects to hear. A similar passage in the third movement, marked Scherzando (“joking”) was played squarely with no attempt at levity, much to my disappointment. Yet the movement ended with the massive chords we expect from Rachmaninoff and as close to “the big tune” this third concerto has to offer. Apart from three unison chords which were not together (“Caveat exequentor!” – soloist beware!) the performance was clean and stylish, my own expectations notwithstanding.

In a display of bravura – and to celebrate the birthday of Vladimir Horowitz (October 1, 1903) – Eichner played the socks off the Rachmaninoff C-sharp minor Prelude, followed with the unannounced eponymous work by Chopin. As if to prove he “has the chops”…

Music Director John Gordon Ross has done wonders with this orchestra, in great measure because he is a bona fide Resident Conductor. In a state where three of the principal orchestras have music directors whose homes are in Great Britain, one in New York, and at least two others share their music directors’ time and devotion with at least two other orchestras, it is a rare luxury for the city to count on the music director to be an active citizen and advocate in the artistic, political and academic community. Bravo Maestro!