The young maestro Vladimir Kulenovic was born 42 years ago in Belgrade, capital of Serbia (former capital of Yugoslavia), of musical parents. A US resident since the age of 12, Kulenovic holds degrees in conducting from The Juilliard School and the Peabody Institute. He last appeared with the Winston-Salem Symphony in 2018. With his vigorous and imposing gestures, he captivated the large audience on Sunday afternoon, as he is reported to have done on opening night.

The soloist was the young celebrity cellist, Julian Schwarz, familiar to local audiences as one of the stars of the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, NC. Four years ago he was featured by the Winston-Salem Symphony in the First Cello Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich. This year he gave us a sublime performance of the Concerto No. 1 in C by Joseph Haydn.

Putting aside the baton he had used so effectively in the opening overture (see below) the maestro chose the mannered but more intimate use of flitting fingers to set tempo and mood – both of which changed as soon as Schwarz put bow to string: clearly his version was faster, more robust and filled with the humor we associate with mature Haydn. Schwarz’s utmost precision, gorgeous tone and vibrato, and musical wit graced this first movement, culminating in a cadenza that charmed me – full of fun bowings, like the “flying spiccato” (rapid repeated notes in the same bow direction sounding like a musical machine-gun).

The second movement, marked Adagio, was lovely and seemed the perfect length (a sign that the tempo was well chosen). I marveled at how subtly Schwarz maintained control over the vibrato that so enhances the tone of his cello (a 1743 Gagliano). The lively Finale, marked Allegro molto, was a vehicle for the soloist to exhibit his virtuosity, which Schwarz did with generous sprinklings of humor!

After the standing ovation, Schwarz informed the audience that he would be joined by four other cellists to play a transcription (by Neal Cary) of J. S. Bach’s Sarabande from the Sixth Suite for Unaccompanied Cello (BWV 1012). It was beautiful to listen to so many cello soloists and generous of Schwarz to share the spotlight with half the cello section!

After intermission a very large orchestra returned to the stage to perform the most popular work by Hungarian composer Belà Bartok – the Concerto for Orchestra, one of the last works he composed. The orchestra sounded superb, immaculately clean and precise with excellent intonation. There were minimal questions of balancing the sections, particularly in pianissimo passages where strings tended to be obscured by woodwinds or by brass. (I look forward to when the completion of the remodeling of the Stevens Center will allow me to return to my preferred seating in the balcony, with its superior sound balance and tone quality.)

Bartok and his compatriot Zoltan Kodaly had spent several years studying the folk music of Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Turkey and other areas of interest, transcribing it and recording it on wax cylinders. Bartok found that it liberated him from the tyranny of major vs. minor and regular repeated rhythms and meters. Although he transcribed some of these songs and dances into works appropriately so-titled, he created “simile-folk” music for some of his major works – Divertimento for Strings, Dance Suite, Miraculous Mandarin and Concerto for Orchestra.

Bartok was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to compose a work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra while Bartok was hospitalized with an unknown ailment which later proved to be leukemia, and which was five years later implicated in his death. Bartok spent part of his time composing in Black Mountain, NC, where he was able to hear the song of the tufted titmouse (bird) which figures in the so-called Night Music in the earlier parts of the first movement and much more in the third movement, as well as his last work, the 3rd Piano Concerto.

The second movement (“Game of the Couples”) perhaps best illustrates the “concerto-nature” of the title; each family of instruments plays games as solitary couples until a choral recess with drum interrupts. And then the couples find they have become triplets. The Elegy (third movement) uses material from the introduction of the first movement. Here the tempo was faster than the elegiac mood of the work might presuppose.

The fourth movement (“Interrupted Intermezzo”) starts with woodwinds playing an irregular rhythmic gentle dance followed by the violas in a more somber mood – all to be interrupted by a banal tune Bartok heard on the radio, followed by the best Bronx cheer the brass can play and completed by an extended version of the previous intermezzo. The Finale is a race-to-the-finish, a moto perpetuo which stops for fresh air and restarts ponticello.

The choice of tempo for some of the passages in an otherwise magnificent performance of the Bartok leads me to digress briefly to clarify the question of tempo. One might have thought that when Johann Maelzel patented his wind-up metronome in 1815 and Beethoven published all the metronome markings (speed of the music as measured in number of beats per minute) for Symphonies numbered 1-8 in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in December 1817, that all disputes about tempo might cease. But no, Beethoven’s published tempos were considerably faster than most musicians like, so there is no end to the disputes!

Brahms, half a century later, at first offered tempo markings when musicians requested, but then he erased them finding the useful only as a guide, but not to be adhered to. But with Bartok, yet another half-century later, we have a different situation: not only does he specify the exact tempo, having calculated it with a stopwatch, but he specifies in the conductor’s score how many minutes and seconds have passed since the last marking or significant musical event. In other words, an element of rigidity now threatens the conductor’s tempo prerogatives. In fact, outside the recording industry (with click-track and stopwatch precision) I have never run across such strict indications of tempo and time notations as found in some scores of Bartok!

In this afternoon’s performance of the Bartok, several of the tempos were noticeably faster than usual. However, this did not detract from the appreciation of the performances, only causing an occasion jolt of tempo awareness.

Florence Price is becoming more well-known now that major orchestras around the country are recording her symphonies. The Second Concert Overture, which opened the Sunday concert, is a magnificently orchestrated fantasy which stretches, twists and blends three Negro Spirituals (“Go Down Moses,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit”). There was a lovely cello solo (Brooks Whitehead) and violin solo (Corine Brouwer) which the brass seemed intent on smothering.

The next candidate for Music Director performs with the Winston-Salem Symphony in the first week of January 2023.