Friends have said they attend summer blockbuster movies for the free air conditioning. The movies are thrilling at face value, but it’s the air conditioning they go for. But what if there were something that was engaging and had air conditioning to help aid the summer heat wave woes?

The Winston-Salem Symphony‘s final concerts of the season, consisting of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, in D, and select works by Randall Thompson and Bruckner, offer more thrills and imagery than any summer blockbuster movie playing today. And, thanks to the Stevens Center, there’s free air conditioning, too!

These concerts wrap up Music Director Robert Moody‘s 10th anniversary season with in Winston-Salem. The programs reaffirm his place in the Triad as an artistic leader who challenges and inspires audiences and players alike.

“Inspire” is the word Moody uses to describe what he has set out to accomplish, working in his profession. In a phone interview, he described his love of music and inspiring audiences as stemming from the time he saw George Solti conduct the Chicago Symphony at Moody’s alma mater, Furman University. The piece they performed? Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

“Programming this symphony…; I have a personal connection with it because I will never forget seeing Solti conduct the piece and the sounds the orchestra produced. When the horns stood up in the end of the last movement, I remember crying, it was such a moving moment.”

The shorter first half of the concert highlighted the WSS Chorale, prepared by UNCG Choral Professor Carole J. Ott. Bruckner’s “Psalm 150” opened the concert, accompanied by the orchestra and with soprano and UNCG graduate Chelsea Bonagura as the soloist. Her gorgeous sound and presence showed us a star in the making. Following a brief exit of the instrumentalists (complete with murmurs from audience members of “Is it over?” “What’s going on?”), the chorus remained onstage for a performance of Randall Thompson’s “Ye Shall Have a Song,” from The Peaceable Kingdom. Ott, who will be retiring from directing the Chorale after seven years of service, conducted the a cappella piece from the podium as maestro Moody joined the men to sing. Ott’s conducting is masterful and fluid, extremely reminiscent of someone like Balanchine, who gave thought to every gesture when he danced. Ott’s conducting is thoughtful dancing, poised and polished, in this case obtaining a soulful sound from the choir and making this, her final concert with the symphony, one of extreme merit.

After a brief intermission, the orchestra returned to play the Mahler. The First Symphony becomes personal to anyone who encounters it, as it relates to youth and its importance in shaping us as we ascend into the world as independent souls, trying desperately to figure out our places among everything. Mahler’s works are wholly autobiographical, and this symphony is a fine introduction to audiences and critics alike. We heard the sounds of nature and the earth in the first movement, calling out to one another in celebration of life.*

Mahler painted with a broad brush, even in this first symphony. Along the way, the boozy sounds of a Klezmer band are heard, sounds Mahler once heard growing up above a pub in Bohemia. A minor variation of the nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques” is heard repeatedly in the movement until the finale brings the musicalization of a heartbreak before ending triumphantly, as if to say the dark side of love does not destroy a person but instead makes them prevail, to appreciate the beauty of the earth that they inhabit. To quote T.S. Elliot, “… And the end of our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” The performance had audience members glued to their seats until the final note, on which the entire Stevens Center crowd burst into a standing ovation.

It’s no wonder it makes you cry by the end.

Moody’s observance of Solti and the Chicago Symphony was what he observed as “a perfect marriage between conductor and orchestra.” With music directors like Alan Gilbert (of the NY Philharmonic) and Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic) leaving their coveted positions, it is interesting to recognize how important a conductor is to an orchestra and the community around it.

Robert Moody has been so influential in bringing the WSS into the “new age” that the orchestra’s brand seems that of a state symphony rather than a regional one. Concerts draw audiences old and young, the “Kickback Classics” series allows for patrons to immerse themselves in education while enjoying the evening in jeans and t-shirts, and the “Discovery Kids” series brings classical music to the next generation of children. Every piece played by the Winston-Salem Symphony is a new discovery, even if you’re hearing it for the 100th time. There is something fresh and invigorating about these performances, and, more often than not, everyone in the hall is electrified. The programming of Mahler’s First reminds us that classical music has not died but is in fact alive and well and carrying a phone number with a 336 area code.

Note: This program will be repeated June 2 in the same venue. For details, see the sidebar.

*Edited/corrected 6/2, with kind thanks to an attentive reader and a member of the orchestra.