The Winston-Salem Symphony featured the violoncello, commonly known as the cello, in its first classical concert of the New Year, and not only one cello, but many cellos, in a concert with the kitschy subtitle of “Cello-bration.” Few would contest Music Director Robert Moody’s claim that the cello is the most expressive instrument of the orchestra although every instrument has unique singing qualities.

Forsaking his baton for a bow, Maestro Moody joined the tail end of the cello section for the first piece on the program, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, probably the Brazilian composer’s best-known work. Composed to recognize the influence of J. S. Bach, yet profoundly Brazilian (hence the title), Villa-Lobos penned nine such suites for various ensembles. In Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, soprano Elizabeth Pacheco Rose joined eight cellos, under the direction of the Winston-Salem Symphony’s Associate Conductor, Matt Troy, who chose to conduct sans baton. Madame Pacheco Rose has a beautiful voice, and her childhood connection to Brazilian Portuguese gave the performance a cachet of authenticity.

From the intimate semi-circle of eight instruments, the stage filled to its maximum for Schelomo by Swiss-American composer, Ernest Bloch. Written in a period of his life when his Jewish roots were important to his life as a composer, Bloch had been intrigued by the book of Ecclesiastes and had envisioned a choral work based on this profound Old Testament book, purportedly authored by the legendary King Solomon. He was befriended at that time by the Russian cellist Alexander Barjansky, whose playing greatly impressed the 34-year-old Bloch. He subsequently decided to give the voice of Solomon to the cello and created one of the major concertos (modestly described by Bloch as a Rhapsody) in the cello repertory.

Principal cellist and University of North Carolina School of the Arts artist-faculty member Brooks Whitehouse was the soloist in this superb performance. He has a beautiful tone, a great technique and the dramatic musicality to make this a “must hear” performance. Exotic harmonies, parallel fifths and fourths, augmented seconds, col legno, muted brass, a pair of harps, and expressive double reed solos, Schelomo has it all and is intensely satisfying to listen to.

After intermission, Robert Moody led the orchestra in what is probably the most familiar overture in the repertory, Gioacchino Rossini’s Overture to William Tell, which opens with a gorgeous octet composed for five solo celli, two bassi and timpani. Resuming his seat at the head of the cello section, Brooks Whitehouse played the lead part on this beautiful section with pure poetry. The ensuing section is one of the best musical storms since Beethoven’s 6th, yielding in turn to a lovely English horn solo (played by Cara Fish) based on Swiss yodeling and matched by the filigree virtuosity of the first flutist, Kathryn Levy. Maestro Moody is to be congratulated on some of the finest pianissimo passages this writer has heard in a long while. The immensely popular final section with its galloping rhythm was held in abeyance, allowing the accelerando at the end to actually happen.

Maestro Moody then led the orchestra through Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 10 in F Min/Maj which he wrote at the tender age of 19, and which made him well-known within a year of its premiere in 1926. It is a mercurial work, shifting restlessly from march to waltz, from humor to pathos and from very soft to very loud. As David Levy points out in the well-written program notes, “Shostakovich forces us to play a guessing game of “what next?’” especially in the short first movement. The second movement starts with a game of tag between basses and celli, a canon at the octave, and ends with a pianistic surprise which I will not spoil for concert-goers who may attend the Tuesday night repeat performance. The oboe solo, which opens the somber and somewhat lugubrious third movement, toys with the entire 12-tone series (including the accompaniment), perhaps as close as Shostakovich ever came toward serialism. This solo is repeated later, verbatim, by the violin solo and gives the entire movement a dark and brooding cast. The final movement meanders a bit, revisiting earlier material before a dramatic tympani phrase, repeated three times, rivets the audience’s attention. The entire symphony which has hesitated to declare itself major or minor finally ends in a triumphant F major chord.