Saturday night ushered in a new kind of evening at the symphony. Winston Salem Symphony members were without tuxes, dressed in concert black attire, audience members were chatting with one another as if these concerts were a weekly thing they enjoy together, and the overall atmosphere was more relaxed than usual.

This performance, the first of three being given through April 28 at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston, reaffirmed the orchestra and music director Robert Moody‘s place in the Triad for providing interesting and memorable programs.

The concept of “Kickback Classics” is structured much like Bernstein’s preview concerts that he opened to the public, providing an informal chance for the conductor to step off the podium and talk to the audience about the piece and why it was picked, important to music history, etc. Although Moody does this with great charm and ease, he is a winning example of where the conducting profession is heading in the future, for a screen above the orchestra that plays factoids during every piece assists him.

The concert opened with Shostakovich’s The Age of Gold (suite from the ballet), Op.22a. This piece, one of the composer’s most radical, portrays the visit of a Russian soccer team to an unnamed Western city where they become “tainted” by the ways of Westerners. I’m sure Moody was aware that this has a Bernstein connection: the composer’s musical Wonderful Town would describe a similar story about a mother and daughter from Ohio coming to New York and becoming “corrupted” by the ways of the city.

(My only concern about the beginning of the concert was a misprint in the program, for The Age of Gold Suite, consisted of three movements though the booklet listed only two. Thankfully, Moody’s handmade slideshow above him listed all three movements in case people decided to rush home and buy the movements on iTunes!)

Following that piece was a brief intro by Moody of Beethoven 7th Symphony, accompanied by a film clip of Bernstein deconstructing the famous second movement. “There’s not much of a melody there, or harmony for that matter,” the composer says to his interviewer. “But it is Beethoven’s form which makes him so great, as if he has had every note phoned in to him from heaven.”

The WSS in these first two pieces played with superb finesse, Moody emulating Bernstein with sweeping gestures and dance-like movements that helped create, for me, one of the best performances of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony I will probably hear in a while.

During the second half of the concert, Moody was much more restrained in his conducting – a natural thing to do with difficult pieces as I think they are so timeless and perfect that any orchestra would feel inspired just playing them. The Saxophone Concerto by Henri Tomasi was a highlight of an evening filled with masterpieces. UNCSA alum Benjamin Robinette melted the audience’s heart with his saxophone lines. Moody joked before the piece that there are times when the conductor and the soloist differ on tempi and interpretation and referred to Bernstein’s and Glen Gould’s infamous battle over the Brahms First Piano Concerto. The marriage of WSS, Moody, and Robinette was the antithesis of the Gould/Bernstein battle, all three elements working at their fullest potential with thrilling results.

By the end of the concert, the audience was hyped – the orchestra and Moody inspiring the joy of music from the start with rediscoveries of famous pieces (Beethoven) and found loves for new pieces (Tomasi). It was however in the “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story that the orchestra delivered the finest playing of the evening – a big feat, as the Beethoven had received much applause and “bravos.”

The dances are full of pitfalls and difficult spots that, if either the conductor or the players break concentration, can make the piece sound cacophonic. The WSS and Moody are however pros, and they delivered the thrilling sections (“Mambo”/”Cool”) with excitement and the softer sections (“Somewhere”) with a lyricism that sang throughout the hall.

This season marks Moody’s 10th year with the orchestra. It seems to be a rare and happy marriage. The orchestra rises to each piece with enthusiasm and skill unmatched by many orchestras playing today. They love the audience and the audience loves them. And both come together to love one thing: the music. In the year gearing up for the next presidential campaign, it is refreshing to see someone like Moody unite people in the way we want the next leader of the free world to do!

With regard to Moody’s contract, I say: “Four more years! Four more years!”