Sunday afternoon’s performance by Winston-Salem Symphony under the direction of candidate Timothy Redmond was one of the best this writer has heard. And the eclectic and unconventional style of the conductor is probably the chief reason. Rarely have I seen this orchestra so intensely focused and concentrated as during this concert.

The program opened with a stunning performance of the Pulcinella Suite drawn from the ballet of the same name by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). The composer of three magnificent ballets, Firebird, Petruchka, and Le Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring), had now embarked on a new quest which eventually became known as Neoclassicism and which is even today perhaps more controversial than the outrage that followed the dissonant Rite of Spring.

Hardly had the conductor mounted the podium than he lurched and lunged into the opening of this work, purportedly based of a collection of pieces by the early 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi. Written for a small orchestra and employing the Baroque technique of concertino vs. ripieno style, which pits the principal players as soloists against the larger forces of the massed sections, Pulcinella allowed us to admire the virtuosity of the woodwind players, the daring of the brass, and the warmth of the strings. Oboist John Hammarback was splendid in his many extended solos, as was concertmaster Corine Brouwer. Brian French, principal trombone, and bassist Paul Sharpe drew chuckles from the audience in their unusual duet near the end of the work. Spectacular orchestration by Stravinsky was always in evidence, from the ricochet bowings to the eerie harmonic pizzicatos which sounded like drums,

American composer Samuel Barber (1910-81) composed his only Violin Concerto three years after the hugely successful Adagio for Strings (1937), but it has taken more than half a century for the work to become a staple in the concerto repertory. The first movement is a whimsical fantasy with a lyricism which allows the soloist to shine. Steven Moeckel was the violin virtuoso who graced the stage with his presence. Indeed, the third movement made demands on the soloist in its unstoppable perpetual motion, topped only by the virtuosic skill of the conductor. The middle movement, Andante, again gave a gorgeous melody to the principal oboe, which was then embellished by Moeckel on his beautiful-sounding Vuillaume (1798-1875) violin.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) completed seven symphonies of which two (the second and the fifth) are performed quite frequently. The Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39, was composed about the same time (the turn of the century) as the popular Finlandia. However, in more than half a century of concert-going, this was the first time that yours truly has encountered it in a live performance. And more’s the pity because it is a striking and original work, filled with lyricism, moments of longing and tremendous climaxes built over shivering string tremolos, all familiar to lovers of the Finnish giant’s other works.

After a hushed opening with only a solo clarinet over an ominous quiet roll of the timpani, the strings erupted into long of dialogues high-pitched instruments struggling with their lower brothers, all with brass commentaries – and then a sudden, abrupt ending, typical of Sibelius. Again the timpani intervened in the second movement, this time with two high flutes in a bit of midsummer magic. The Scherzo is full of tongue-twisting woodwind passages. And after starting in a morose tragic mood, the Finale (quasi una fantasia) lived up to its name by weaving a spell over the audience while the orchestra played this astounding score with virtuosity and passion. I have rarely heard the Winston-Salem Symphony sound so good.

Perhaps the largest cause for this excellence was the conductor himself, Redmond. He used an unconventional and minimalistic technique reminiscent of Pierre Boulez, Leopold Stokowski, and Valery Gergiev and, like all three, he conducted without a baton. One had the impression that he was manipulating with bare hands the phrases and dramatic content of the music rather than the beat. Indeed, the clearest and most obvious gestures were the starts and stops. They were unmistakable, and the orchestra was impeccably together.

Michael Tilson Thomas once was quoted in Time magazine as saying that a great performance is akin to skating on a lake as far as the ice was frozen and then, when the ice turns dark and feels springy, calmly turning to skate back.

Never has this orchestra skated on thin ice so well! Bravo!

This program repeats Tuesday, April 30. See our sidebar for details.