The Winston-Salem Symphony, under the direction of music director Michelle Merrill, started the new year with a concert that focused on musical depictions of water, featuring the saxophone concerto a raft, the sky, the wild sea by Douglas Cuomo (US, b. 1958). Also on the program were the 1905 La Mer (The Sea) by Claude Debussy (France, 1862-1918) and La Valse (1920) by a composer often linked with Debussy, Maurice Ravel (France,1875-1937).

Before the concert began, clarinetist Ronald Rudkin welcomed the audience (via a video), talking about the upcoming music. A live welcome came from Maestra Merrill, who talked a bit about the program, concluding with the hope that the audience would like the “la” sandwich (opening with La Mer and concluding with La Valse).

Perhaps the highlight of the concert was Cuomo’s concerto, a work that was co-commissioned by the London Philharmonic, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and the Winston-Salem Symphony, with Saturday night’s concert being the third orchestra playing the work. Cuomo explained the genesis of a raft, the sky, the wild sea in the accompanying program notes: “I was imagining an inner voyage . . . sometimes calm and reassuring, sometimes startling and turbulent.” Furthermore, the composer was thinking specifically about the world’s refugees: “those who are forced to flee their homeland . . . a harrowing physical reality.” The piece, which incorporates both classical and jazz influences, was written specifically for the Grammy-winning American saxophonist Joe Lovano.

The three movements flow into each other without a pause; the listener is not sure if the three components of the title reflect the specific music of the three movements. It should be said that the saxophone solo is mostly improvised, as Cuomo explains: “The score prescribes very clearly exactly when the saxophone plays, but during the improvised sections, what is played is largely left to them.”
The orchestral forces were huge, including five percussionists, harp, and piano. A short startling orchestral passage was heard before the saxophone entered with the first of many unaccompanied solos, with Lovano bending pitches and dispatching fast flourishes. Several soloists from the orchestra were heard as well; particularly notable was the fine trombone playing in the first movement. The second movement contained some tender, stirring passages from the orchestra. The third movement was striking, with its opening drum solo that was eventually joined by Lovano’s sure playing. Lots of scurrying from the double basses as well as solo cello were heard before the opening drum motive returned.

This listener would have loved to have seen a score to see what the composer intended to be completely improvised and what was notated. Lovano’s playing was delicate and forceful by turns, always confident. The orchestra, too, seemed to delight in this classical/jazz merger. As the composer stated in his notes: “This is a musical exploration through the unknown, with each performance unique, acknowledging that every journey we take is one of high stakes, but also infinite possibility.”

The composer was on hand and received his well-deserved applause along with Lovano and Merrill. Lovano treated the nice-sized audience to an encore: a solo improvisation.

Preceding Cuomo’s concerto was La Mer. The composer titled the composition thusly: “The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra.” The opening, “From dawn to noon on the sea,” begins with a very slow introduction followed by a more animated section (one assumes as the sun rises) with swelling “waves” of orchestral color, followed by majestic horns. One appreciated Merrill’s graceful conducting (which perfectly caught the calm opening and the whispers of the orchestra) to bolder gestures, which brought forth walls of sound.

“Play of the Waves” is faster, and one can easily imagine the open ocean with its rolling whitecaps. The final “Dialogue of the wind and the sea,” concludes with all four percussionists fully employed as well as the brass, winds, strings, and two harps.

Debussy is certainly a master orchestrator, and it was a field day for almost every principal chair, who got a chance to enrich the sound with a solo. The velvety (or agitated) string sections, the plaintive winds, and majestic brass were employed with sensitivity for veiled textures as well as magnificent climaxes.

Ravel made these comments about what La Valse is: “a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled with, in my mind, the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling.” Indeed, this is a waltz that certainly begins tentatively, seemingly trying to find an appropriate motive. But by the end, the orchestra is spinning out of control, portraying the destruction of the waltz and maybe the end of the Austro-German empire—World War I had ended only a couple of years before the premiere.

This was my first concert with the W-SS under the direction of Merrill. I would give high marks to both her conducting as well as the program performed, mixing “old” with new, featuring a couple of works sharing much in common (the sea) ,and composers who are often linked together (Debussy and Ravel). She seems to have found a way to make music, in her words, “relevant to people from all walks of life, creating experiences that invite as many people as possible to personally feel the joy of this great art form.”