Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36, has always been problematic, and remained so for the Winston-Salem Symphony and Music Director Robert Moody in the Stevens Center. That work occupied the second half of an otherwise delightful concert.
Only a small crowd resisted the warm sunny weather or the animal call of the final game of the ACC basketball tournament (Duke won!), but those who attended were in for some real treats – what's not to like in Prokofiev, Mozart and Tchaikovsky? As the ever-witty Maestro Moody quipped after the effervescent Classical Symphony of Prokofiev, "Who needs basketball when you've got Prokofiev?"
And indeed, this was scintillating – great tempos, exquisitely precise string playing and near-perfect intonation in the stratospheric violin parts – all contributed to an exciting performance of Prokofiev's First Symphony in D, Opus 25. The apparent simplicity of the four movements is deceptive – this short (20 minutes) piece is one of the more difficult in the repertory! Very high writing in the violins and almost impossibly fast passages in the woodwinds make this work a real challenge. A couple of tempos lagged (the Larghetto and the sly Gavotte) but soon adjusted, and the last movement sparkled!
The principal clarinet of the orchestra, Anthony Taylor, was the featured soloist in Mozart's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A, KV 622, one of the most revered concertos in the entire repertory! A reduced size orchestra accompanied the excellent Mr. Taylor, but still managed to be too loud on many occasions. Mr. Taylor, a specialist in the jazz medium as well as the classical, managed to infuse the Mozart concerto with many quasi-improvised moments – rarely was a passage repeated verbatim; there was always a variant, a twist, an echo. And technically, his staccato was most impressive – I only wished he might play louder, to match the orchestra and the omnipresent air-handler!
I was impressed by Maestro Moody's Mozart, simple, straight-forward idiomatic Mozart, well attended by the orchestra. Special mention to the two horns who played the second movement's first tutti beautifully. The sprightly Rondo was admirably played by all concerned. (Could the Symphony please mention the names of the movements of all works on the program page, as is traditional?)
Enter "Tchaik Four," one of the war horses, the chestnuts of the symphonic repertory. The orchestra played this difficult and long work very well, from the powerful brass (who intone the "Fate" motif several times in the first movement and dramatically in the finale, just to be banished by the triumphant principal theme) to the melancholy delicate oboe solo of new-comer, John Hammarback, in the second movement; from the sizzling pizzicato plucking of the strings and the unbelievable piccolo solo of Elizabeth Ransom in the third movement to the inevitable forcefulness of the Finale.
But what does tampering with tempos do to enhance that which Tchaikovsky wrote? Inflamed phrases and sudden tempo changes in the first movement and excessively loud and premature outbursts throughout robbed the real climax of its power. These and the tailgated Finale all detract from the structural unity of this complex work. A simpler approach, mindful of the structure and placement of the climax of the whole, might reveal a more cohesive masterpiece than the episodic performance of exuberant passages, each anecdotally impressive. Nonetheless, the audience paid a loud and deserved homage to Tchaikovsky and to the orchestra.