The Western Piedmont Symphony concluded its 2005-2006 Masterworks season with a concert of all 20th-century music on Saturday, April 8, 2006, at First Baptist Church in Hickory. There was a time when a concert devoted entirely to 20th-century music would strike fear and trepidation in the hearts of presenters and audience alike, evoking thoughts of squeaks and squawks and bangs and bams assaulting the ears, and almost assuring sparse attendance. But remember – Copland, Bernstein, Elgar, and even Rachmaninov and Mahler were all 20th-century composers, writing beautiful, melodic and memorable music. Such was the case with this program.

The concert opened with “Musica Celestis” by Aaron Jay Kernis (b.1960). Kernis is one of the most honored young American composers and one of the youngest to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. His music bursts with rich poetic imagery and brilliant instrumental color. “Musica Celestis” is a string orchestra transcription of the slow movement of his First String Quartet. It is inspired by the music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a medieval teacher, monastic leader, mystic, author, and composer. Kernis paints the musical heavens with broad strokes of color and texture, interspersed with fleeting strokes of light and sound. The string orchestra captured the mood and moment with great reverence and beauty, providing lushness to the palette painted by the composer. Solo passages were played by the section principals with great loveliness and tenderness.

Kammermusik No. 7, Op. 46, No. 2, by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), followed on the program. Hindemith was one of Germany’s most important composers in the 1920s and 1930s. He emigrated to the United States in 1940 and taught at Yale University. Kammermusik No. 7, also known as Concerto for Organ and Chamber Orchestra, the final work in a series, was commissioned by Frankfurt Radio for the inauguration of the Weigle organ in their concert hall. Instrumentation for this work is rather unusual, consisting only of cellos, double basses, a small complement of woodwinds and brasses, and organ. The organ soloist for the evening was Florence Jowers, Assistant Professor of Music and College Organist of Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory. She also serves as organist of First Baptist Church in Hickory. In three movements, Kammermusik No. 7 is very baroque in style, with great contrasts, canons, and fugues. The contrasts are loud and soft, short and sustained. Both organist and orchestra accomplished the not-so-simple three movements with apparent deftness and ease, belying the difficulty of the work.

The final offering on the program was Church Windows (Vetrate di Cheisa) by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). Respighi’s music has been described as “new old music.” He had a special gift for bringing early Italian music into the present with luminous harmonies and orchestral colors. Church Windows is one such work. It is actually an orchestration of Three Preludes for Piano on Gregorian Themes, with an added fourth prelude.

The four movements are a contrast of quiet and gentle, loud and bombastic. The first, The Flight into Egypt, and the third, The Matins of St. Clare, are tender and hypnotic. Both were rendered beautifully by the orchestra. The second, St. Michael Archangel, and fourth, Saint Gregory the Great, are quite the opposite, with St. Michael and his angels battling the dragons in heaven, and the finale, a “Papal Coronation” in sound, depicting the elegance and grandeur of Pope St. Gregory. The orchestra performed admirably in these movements, with Jowers at First Baptist’s new Casavant Frères organ, pulling out all the stops – and there are a lot of them – at the very end to send the audience home on a musical high – so high, in fact, that the orchestra repeated the final section as an encore, to a standing ovation.

Thus, the 41st season of the Western Piedmont Symphony was brought to a fitting and triumphant close. Next season, however, promises to be even more spectacular. Don’t miss it.