The Winston-Salem Symphony opened the orchestra’s 75th season with a phenomenal performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 44 (first movement only) under the inspired leadership of guest conductor Andrew Grams. Rarely performed, the movement is filled with thrilling moments of power, utilizing complex mixed meters leading to high points which the conductor shifted into a sort of “musical overdrive.”

Maestro Grams has a clear and expressive technique with the orchestra, paying careful attention to dynamics and to how they figure into shaping the musical phrases into larger segments, creating an expressive musical landscape. Orchestral color was evident throughout the concert with unusual effects such as muted or stopped horn in the coda of the Rachmaninoff yielding to the supernatural and eerie sound of the violins playing the melody in their top register, produced by playing harmonics (overtones) high on the E-string. (More special effects were to come in the second half of the concert in Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of the piano masterpiece, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modeste Mussorgsky.)

Violin soloist Simone Porter, tall, slender and fiery, dominated the stage as she partnered with the Winston-Salem Symphony in what many think of as the most perfect and sublime concerto in the repertory, the Violin Concerto, Opus 64 by Felix Mendelssohn. One of the few concertos which include the composer’s own completed cadenza (see Joshua Bell for a rare exception), this concerto bridges the gap between the strictness of the Classical period and the emotional discretion of the interpreter in the Romantic period.

This performance of Porter was impeccable and the audience rose en masse in recognition of the splendid violin playing. If only the applause had persevered, we might have been treated to an encore!

After intermission, the conductor was put to the test in Ravel’s orchestration of one of the piano repertory’s most trying and rewarding works, Mussorgsky’s massive Pictures at an Exhibition. Inspired by the paintings of a close friend of the composer, Viktor Hartmann, who had died prematurely at age 39 of a ruptured aneurism, this chef d’oeuvre consists of a series of musical descriptions or commentaries on a scant dozen paintings, tied together by Promenades (a varied walking tune) which take on the character of the previous painting; all ending in a grandiose final version at the “Great Gate of Kiev” (now called the “Golden Gate of Kiev“). The lighting designer of the Stevens Center illuminated the stage at this performance by the yellow and blue of the flag of Ukraine.

The Ravel version opens with a brisk Promenade played with strength and bravura by acting principal trumpet, Judith Saxton, who also shone later as the arguing “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.” The “Gnomus” followed immediately with its mysterious trills encompassing the forbidden tritone. After another brief promenade, we encounter the painting of “The Old Castle” which was rendered by an alto saxophone solo beautifully played by Robert Young who has recently joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

“Les Tuileries” is an immense garden in the midst of Paris usually filled with children and their nannies, admirably rendered by the babbling of the strings of the orchestra, followed by “Bydło,” the lumbering two-wheeled cart drawn by a cow, played fully in character on a tenor tuba by principal trombonist, Brian French. The “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells” gave the woodwinds a chance to show a different side of their technique, with special mention to oboist John Hammarback.

This was a great start to the new season and the works were well suited to highlight the best qualities of this first candidate for Music Director. The Winston-Salem Symphony is in fine form for an organization which has taken its part of pain and suffering during the pandemic added to the unexpected departures of its music director and assistant conductors. This is a strong orchestra with outstanding musicians in all sections. It is now up to the audience to show its support and to exercise its influence on the choice of the next music director, a critical choice at a critical time of history. The “new normal” is not yet certain or even clear – it is up to us to decide if we should be in the picture or not! The concert repeats Sunday, September 18 at 3:00 p.m. See sidebar for details.