The Western Piedmont Symphony continued their Masterworks Series with an interesting combination of old favorites and new works; works by Debussy and Mendelssohn sandwiched new music by two composers who are very much alive and well. Armando Bayolo and Edmund Cionek, both active composers, were present for the concert. The choice of programming new music as well as old serves as a reminder that orchestral composition is an art form that is also alive and kicking.

Maestro John Gordon Ross opened the night with a quick-step rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” While this is not an uncommon way for this orchestra to start its performances, the gesture was particularly appropriate on the night before Veterans Day. After a moment to allow some latecomers to settle in, the orchestra launched into Debussy’s “En Bateau” from his Petite Suite. This work, colorfully orchestrated by Debussy’s assistant, Henri Büsser, was originally conceived as a piano duet. The inherent intimacy of the original does not always translate well to the full orchestral treatment, but the first and third movements managed to capture some of this quality. 

Unfortunately, P.E. Monroe Hall has the tendency to predominantly reflect the sound from the back of the stage to such an extent that the balance between the strings and everyone else was noticeably affected. While the first meter change in the last movement was muddled, most of the transitions were handled gracefully. Additionally, the dynamic expressivity and phrasing of this reading made hearing the suite a pleasure. 

The two middle pieces of the concert were two recent works by living composers, both of whom were recognized to generous applause. The first was Armando Bayolo’s symphony, Cancionero Mudo, translated as “mute songbook” in program notes by the composer. The work is characterized by angular melodic writing, a heavy emphasis on syncopation and dense harmonic clusters. It calls for a wide array of percussion instruments, including a ratchet. Despite references to “songs without words,” the work displays little vocal quality. The second movement incorporated a strange combination of timbres and musical styles. Strings and orchestral bells, very much in the style of Arvo Pärt, were interrupted by Wagnerian blasts of the brass section. The orchestra negotiated the metric changes and rhythmic complexities well.

Edmund Cionek’s “American Remix” followed. This short piece incorporates some familiar and not-so-familiar American melodies. Cionek describes the work as a continuation of the pursuit of a truly American sound, and his work stylistically references Ives, Copland, and Bernstein in turn. The high point of his writing is certainly the harmonic movement in inner voices. The abrupt stylistic transitions were no joke for the orchestra, but the players used the challenge to their advantage, bringing out the changes in color and expression to good effect.

The last work on the program was Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony (Op. 107), known as the “Reformation.” As is typical for this ensemble, the dynamic expression was in its strength of the performance. The entire ensemble was at its best, however, when the strings were at the forefront.

Attendance was disappointingly sparse, especially for a Saturday well before the busy holiday season. Some audience members speculated that this was due to a recent rise it ticket prices, but a cursory examination of last season’s ticket stubs suggests otherwise. While the current economic climate is not one to encourage concert attendance, $15 is hardly an unreasonable price for a seat in the back of the hall. Hickory folks are encouraged to keep up the local tradition of strong artistic support.