Robert Moody opened his thirteenth and final season as Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony with two familiar blockbusters and the Concerto for Two Cellos by contemporary American composer, David Ott. Unfortunately, only a medium-sized audience could resist the warm sunny September weather for the musical adventures within the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem.

The Ott Concerto for Two Cellos (1987) is not un-interesting, but drew most attention from the audience in the third movement, a rhythmic piece with abundant solo virtuosity, interesting rhythms, and a stunning cadenza for the two cellos which soloists Brooks Whitehouse (of the Winston-Salem Symphony) and Brant Taylor (of the Chicago Symphony) brought off with excitement, often sounding like an entire quartet. The opening movement is surprisingly melodic with a slow introduction and closing. It was a rare pleasure to hear a lengthy solo for alto flute (a deeper-sounding flute pitched in G) caringly and beautifully played by Alicia Campbell. The second movement opened with more soulful singing of the cellos with a mysterious dark trumpet commentary from Anita Cirba. Both cello soloists were exquisitely matched in tone and vibrato and could have been artistic clones of each other. For an encore, they offered a witty and charming mash-up of two beloved cello solos, Bach’s Prelude from the Cello Suite No. 1 in G which served as the harmonic accompaniment to Camille Saint-Saëns’ familiar “Swan” from the Carnival of the Animals.

The concert opened with a grandiloquent performance of Richard Wagner’s popular Prelude to Die Meistersinger in which the brass over-powered the rest of the orchestra. It was impressive to see them stretched out in a single row far upstage while the backdrop of the shell acted as an acoustic reflector of their burnished largess. The tympani were located far downstage, midway between the half-dozen basses and seven cellos while the woodwinds sat in their usual two rows, as far from the brass as they could.

The entire second half of the concert was consecrated to the endearing romantic masterpiece which composer Edward Elgar named the Enigma Variations, Op. 36. An original theme with fourteen variations, each depicting musically a friend of the composer, the work is beloved by audiences, but devilishly difficult to play well. The Winston-Salem Symphony fared well, knocking off the hardest parts with aplomb and even playing preternaturally softly in the quotation of Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage while the tympanist imitated the mechanical sound of the ship’s engines with the traditional coin-drop roll on the drumhead. Simon Ertz played a couple of magnificent viola solos and Whitehouse, back in his usual role as principal cello was lovely in the 12th Variation solo, “B.G.N.” The other guest soloist, Brant Taylor, also joined the section for the Elgar.

It was refreshing to see the gentlemen of the orchestra dressed in long ties befitting the afternoon occasion, and even the Maestro went tie-less for the concert although he maintained his pocket square. The high level of playing and the wide range of dynamics made this concert an auspicious launch of Maestro Moody’s farewell season. The concert repeats Tuesday evening at 7:30 PM. See our sidebar for details.