Coping with crisisThe Winston-Salem Symphony gave another in its series of virtual concerts, a still-new and hopefully durable setting for wide audiences to hear music. The bulk of the program featured two of the fine principal players from the orchestra. It was led by Timothy Redmond, the orchestra’s music director.

After about three minutes of introductory material leading into the performance, the opening work was the Cuban Overture of George Gershwin. This jubilant piece, at times riotous in its sheer energy, is scored for large orchestra; the combined wind and brass players it calls for are as numerous as the entire orchestra on the stage for this concert. The overture was written in 1932, a few years before Porgy and Bess; like the opera, it took inspiration from the scene of the music, in this case a two-week holiday Gershwin spent in Cuba.

The Winston-Salem players treated the infectious, dynamic Caribbean rhythms with catchy energy. The modest-sized ensemble brought forth a full and vibrant sound. The wind section stood out for shapely phrases in this rhythmic environment. Principal trumpet Anita Cirba stood out as well – here and in the other pieces – for her full and blended tone. The string section did not sound as rich, but that may be an inevitable handicap of the small size. There was a lovely clarinet solo in the center of the piece.

While it could not fully match the original, this performance, led with spirit by Redmond, was effective and enjoyable. It was enhanced by a good deal of camera work showing the different players, lending it a full visual experience along with the musical one. The orchestra’s technicians are taking successful advantage of the capabilities of the virtual format.

Lukas Foss was the composer of the next piece, the Renaissance Concerto for flute and orchestra. Foss (1922-2009) was born in Berlin, with remarkable precocity studied for four years in Paris, and had the good fortune to move to the U.S. with his family in 1937, before the onset of WWII. Composer, conductor, professor, and long-time friend of Leonard Bernstein, Foss is one of the more well-known names in American music.

The four-movement Renaissance Concerto was written in 1990 as an intentional pastiche, a piece which would combine musical elements of various eras with the sounds of the 20th century. The soloist was the orchestra’s principal flute, Kathryn Levy. She is a professor at Wake Forest University. She has played with orchestras around the country and has lived in Winston-Salem for forty-five years.

While the concerto could be played with a larger string section, it is scored for a chamber orchestra, making it suitable for performance by a smaller, socially-distanced ensemble. The first movement, “Intrada” has clear evocations of Renaissance sound. It is often comfortably tonal and easygoing, with full sustained chords. There is also some dissonance, the trademark mixing of styles in the concerto. The aptly-named second movement, “Baroque Interlude,” draws plainly on the sounds of that era, including use of the harpsichord. Open lines were well-delineated by the individual players and the tympani had attractive rhythmic punctuations. The slow third movement, “Recitative (After Monteverdi)” evoked the sounds of the late Renaissance. Here, though the performance had a certain amount of passion, one might have wished for a more dramatic, theatrical presentation, with yet more of the wonderfully deep expression of Monteverdi himself. As in the first movement, the modal language was enhanced and colored by modern dissonances.

The final movement “Jouissance” (Enjoyment), came over as somewhat restrained. It could have been quicker, the rhythms at times sharper. It starts contrapuntally, with the suggestion of a brass chorale. Following a much lighter, perky section, there is a rhythmic one, very much like a Renaissance dance with percussion, aided by percussion-like sounds from the flute – an imaginative evocation. After a much more dissonant, contrapuntal, chorale-like section there is another Renaissance-like dance section with flute and tambourine, again evocative, with plenty of complicated rhythm. At the end the piece fades with the drum in a Renaissance-like rhythm. The flutist walked slowly off the stage – a deliberate evocation of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony perhaps? – and exited while still playing, with the piece brought reflectively to an end by a single bell.

Levy had a full tone and was equally effective in light, effervescent playing as she was expressively, making her solo playing appealing across a range of sound and also well-combined with the ensemble.

The final piece was as long as the other two combined: The Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, by Edward Elgar. This classic of the repertory brings together autumnal meditation, passionate lyricism, and opportunities for impressive virtuosity.

The soloist was Brooks Whitehouse, the orchestra’s principal cellist. He is on the faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts and has recorded for CRI, among other labels.

This piece gave Redmond an opportunity to shine in leading lyrical music. Elgar’s Romantic orchestra was much smaller here, which meant the full-throated lushness of the piece could not be entirely brought out. But Redmond’s leading of the all-around-skillful ensemble, together with the fine soloist, made it generally successful. At times the orchestral peaks produced a good deal of power.

The dark passion and the melancholy of the opening sections were carried very well by Whitehouse. He has beautiful tone and phrasing, and very fine softs. One could imagine still more passion in this very full-bodied music. The second movement starts with opposing ideas juxtaposed, and one wondered if the contrasts could be more dramatically highlighted. The following Allegro molto was almost genial in character. That was appealing, but one would have appreciated outright virtuosity. On the other hand, the almost extravagant rubatos in the rhythmic gestures that punctuate the section were swinging, effective. In the large last movement, one could imagine more improvisatory freedom in the cadenza sections at the beginning. The up-spirit sections carried effectively and the ending was dramatic and strong.

It cannot be said too often that the virtual format for concerts is successful and can continue with full viability after the pandemic is no longer with us. In this concert, one might question the choice to play pieces written for large orchestra, rather than programming works which can be fully realized by a chamber-sized ensemble of two dozen or so. The post-COVID era will offer ample opportunities for works which wouldn’t need to be scaled down, with the compromises that entails. That said, this was a successful, enjoyable concert with a great deal of fine playing by both orchestra and soloists. It is a service and a pleasure for listeners to be able to hear music-making such as this, all the more so when most people are not able to be in the concert hall.

This performance will be available to view through April 13. For details go here.