A surprisingly small audience was on hand May 18, in the acoustical gem that is the Stevens Center for the Performing Arts, for an outstanding concert by the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Perret. The programming was two basic war horses of the repertory, the Sixth Symphony of Beethoven and the First Piano Concerto of Tchaikovsky, spiced with a real rarity, Honegger’s “Pacific 231.” Perret spent most of his pre-concert lecture with the Honegger, playing a complete recording with comments on the major features as they were heard.

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was a Swiss born composer who spent most of his life in France. He was a member of “Les Six,” but had little in common with their aesthetics. According to Fritz Muggler, writing in New Grove I , the composer shared with the futurist’s approach “his openness to his times, particularly in a glorification of speed and sport. Himself a keen sportsman and motorist, and lover of the railways, he provided in Rugby and above all, Pacific 231 , the essential model for the ‘ musiques de machines ‘ of the Soviet realist group around [Alexandr] Mosolov.” Perret stressed in his lecture “think train.” Rather than a literal tone poem, the composer meant to convey the “impression and physical enjoyment” of a ride on a fast train. Essentially, this Symphonic Movement No. 1 evokes the mechanical noises of the slow buildup of steam, full steam and the slowdown at the trip’s end. High violin registers produced the squeaks as cellos, double basses and bassoons depicted the slow buildup of rhythms as steam builds up. The first big tune had echoes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring .The orchestrations were fascinating to see and hear. Perret led a fine stylish performance effectively played by all sections of the orchestra, resulting in six or seven minutes of delight.

Perret brought no eccentricity to his interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 (“Pastoral”). All of his tempos were apt, allowing the music time to breathe and register. Many principal players in the Winston-Salem Symphony are distinguished faculty members of the School of the Arts. The woodwinds–oboist John Ellis, flutist Kathryn Levy, clarinetist Nathan Williams and not least, bassoonist Mark Popkin–were simply outstanding. String articulation was excellent with beautiful trills. The brasses were superb with only a slight “burble” in the horns in the second movement. Perret had stressed in his lecture that Beethoven had intended to express the joys of a walk in the country, not a literal picture of the country. Three bird calls–a nightingale, a quail and a cuckoo–are literally quoted.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, is programmed so often and abused too many times as only a display piece for virtuosity, that it is rare to hear it afresh. Moscow native, pianist Dmitri Vorobiev certainly lacks nothing in power or dexterity. He began his studies at the age of five, attending the School of Music and Music College of the Moscow State Conservatory. He received his Bachelor of Music degree from the N.C. School of the Arts in 1996 and his Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1998. His teachers have included Nin Levitaskaya, Victor Bunin, Eric Larsen and Marc Silverman. He is currently a staff accompanist at the School of the Arts, but I suspect not for long, as he gets more concert exposure. In a May 12 Winston-Salem Journal story (“A Splash of Spontaneity”), Vorobiev compared the character of the concerto to that of a Tchaikovsky solo piano piece, “Dumka,” that “is scenes from Russian country and stories.” In both, it is “the character changes… that really attract (him).” Vorobiev’s interpretation and playing was superb from beginning to end. The notes were perfectly clear from “ppp” to the loudest forte. His phrasing was completely convincing. There was no sense of just getting through all the notes as fast as possible. While he certainly lacked nothing in power, it will be the poetry of his performance that will long linger.

Vorobiev is a very economical player. While by no means lacking emotion, he eschewed empty physical gestures when not actually playing. A recent Boston Globe review of a favorite pianist, Dubravka Tomsic, reported that she plays the piano from the elbows down; that image struck me as apt for Vorobiev. He sometimes leaned forward a bit as if on a racing steed, but most of his actions were confined between his elbows and his fingers on the keyboard. There were no grand flourishes with the entire arm and no swaying about like a dervish.

Perret and the Winston-Salem SO provided excellent accompaniment, and there was close communication between soloist and musicians. The solo cello portions of the second movement were played by the distinguished principal, Robert Marsh. After many enthusiastic curtain calls, Vorobiev returned to the well-tuned Steinway to play a transcription by Franz Liszt of Robert Schumann’s song “Widmung.” My advice is to rush to get tickets if ever Vorobiev plays in your area–he’s an artist for whom to watch.

Unlike the current Winston-Salem Symphony season, which has been a good mixture of new and classical works, next year’s Saturday series seems to be switching to pops-type programming. Who wants to drive very far to hear excerpts from Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole”? I hope serious programming won’t be abandoned in favor of light entertainment. The audiences for each are different with little overlap.