The mood was definitely celebratory for the Gala Opening of the Winston-Salem Symphony‘s 70th season. The newly renovated Reynolds Auditorium on the campus of Reynolds High School, which overlooks Winston-Salem’s West End, was the setting for this event. A pre-concert ceremony hosted by Merritt Vale, President and Executive Director and Robert Moody, now in his 11th year as Music Director, recognized past board members and retired musicians, as well as the sole surviving founding member of the orchestra, Rose Ellen Bowen, a teenager at the time, who joined them on stage, and previous music director, yours truly.

Originally formed by James Lerch, the orchestra survived largely due to the tenacity of John Iuele, a commuting trumpet player in the Atlanta Symphony who moved to Winston-Salem to lead the orchestra for a quarter of a century. When I arrived in 1978, all the elements of an excellent orchestra were already in place, including an enthusiastic and active community support system. Current director Moody has added pizzazz and a colorful flair in programming and in the choice of soloists.

A case in point was the engagement of Andrew von Oeyen as the piano soloist to replace the ailing superstar, André Watts. A recent soloist with the W-S Symphony, von Oeyen played Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, Opus 83 in B-flat – a soaring eagle in the concerto repertory that was last performed by the Winston-Salem Symphony in 2000. From the monumental opening horn solo (Robert Campbell) through the quest-filled cello solos in the third movement (Brooks Whitehouse), the orchestra musicians provided von Oeyen with a well-matched musical partnership.

The concert opened with a work featured on the first 1947 concert – Beethoven’s Egmont Overture – part of the incidental music Beethoven composed for the dramatic play by Goethe which ends in the demise of the freedom-seeking Count of Egmont who was beheaded in 1568. Ironically, this occurred in the very neighborhood of Brussels where I attended conservatory 400 years later!

This was followed by the very familiar music from Carmen by George Bizet, transcribed for orchestra by Uruguayan composer and conductor José Serebrier. Replete with lovely solos for alto saxophone (Eileen Young), flute (Kathryn Levy), trombone (Brian French), bassoon section and trumpets, the work brought many smiles to the faces of the audience, young as well as mature.

The main level of the beloved Reynolds Auditorium was full, but only half the balcony was occupied – a reminder that not so long ago, tickets were unreserved at Reynolds and the choice balcony seats were filled half an hour before curtain time. Those days have passed and the far superior acoustics and sight lines of the balcony are disdained for the easy access of the main floor. In an earlier era, loudspeakers discreetly reinforced the inadequate acoustics under the balcony. Although the speakers are still in place, there was no hint of enhancement from them at last night’s concert.

The next program of the Symphony will be the Ode to Joy – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, performed next month on October 15, 16 and 18 in the Stevens Center. See our calendar for more information on these performances.

Disclaimer: I had already accepted the assignment to review this gala opening concert of the Winston-Salem Symphony’s 70th season when the invitation arrived from the Symphony to attend the concert as a guest and part of the celebration. I offered to decline the assignment, but it was suggested that the 25+ years I had spent as Music Director might offer a unique perspective, hence the reportage approach rather than the incisive critical tone expected of a critic!