The Winston-Salem Symphony and vocalist Chris Murrell closed 2008 with a cheery celebration at Reynolds Auditorium before a large crowd of revelers. The orchestra, reduced in number by the multitude of other events and “gigs” at this time of year, called upon its sub list and several former members, even the son of a musician home for the holidays, to flesh out the ranks.
Starting off with a bang with the very familiar medley of Duke Ellington tunes, the orchestra pulled the audience along by the sheer exuberance of its playing – especially the large brilliant percussion section. Maestro Moody, interrupted by the “snap, crackle and pop” of his hidden microphone, then introduced the Neos Dance Theatre whose five ladies and artistic director, Robert Wesner, danced en demie-pointe to the orchestra’s rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s immortal South Pacific. Much of the choreography seemed ho-hum until the orchestra started “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair.”
Then Maestro Moody presented the sensational Chris Murrell, for many years a soloist with the Count Basie Band, and always a sought-after artist. Murrell hails from Winston-Salem and the devoted home crowd gave him a warm welcome. He first sang a medley of Count Basie hits, "Misty," "Embraceable You" and "Moon Glow," featuring great interludes with Ron Rudkin on the tenor sax, assisted by Nathan Scott on bass, Nancy Johnston on keyboard and John Beck on drums.
Before breaking for intermission we were treated to an excellent arrangement of a Salute to the Armed Forces, interspersed with a few snippets of other patriotic tunes. It was touching to see the veterans of the respective services stand at the appropriate times.
A cute and witty tour of the music from The Wizard of Oz started the second half of the concert with verve, vim and vigor, including excellent solos for the tuba (Matt Ransom) and marimba. Chris Murrell, having changed tuxes from white to magenta, returned to reprise “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. The orchestra followed with a dramatic performance of the themes from Casablanca (“Play it, Sam”), replete with out-of-tune bar piano solo, and Murrell returned to sing again, “As Time Goes By.”
Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” brought the best singing of the evening with the double-time section featuring Murrell scat-singing, including his trademark tremolo-trill. “When I fall in Love, It Will Be Forever” had its shaky moments including a couple of near drops, lucky catches and some spontaneous improvisation – no doubt due to vocalist and orchestra being used to different versions of the song. Nonetheless, it was great to hear Murrell again – his voice has not aged, only matured.
Straying felicitously from the printed program, Moody and musicians brought us a taut and well-paced performance of the “Jota,” the finale from Manuel de Falla’s ballet, Three Cornered Hat, again with the dancers from Neos Dance. The collaboration worked well, despite the shallow stage area (about 4 yards), bringing us the best dancing of the evening. It’s intriguing how much the Spanish steps invoke the recent “Spanish Dance” (“Chocolate”) from Nutcracker!
The evening closed with the traditional Strauss waltz, “Voices of Spring,” danced by three couples from the audience, the six dancers from Neos Dance and finally, Chris Murrell and Maestro Moody. Balloons fell from the ceiling and the audience played their noisemakers for “Auld Lang Syne.”
Unfortunately for purists, the amplification of the orchestra (strings especially) falsified the true tone of this excellent orchestra and wrought havoc with the true dynamics. Many times Moody sought to create crescendos and diminuendos in the strings, but the miking obliterated any such subtlety. This was especially sad for Ms. Corine Brouwer, concertmaster, whose usually sweet and warm tone was canned and metallic. Only trumpets and trombones sounded like themselves. Perhaps the pending installation of an orchestra shell and ceiling baffles for the recently-restored Reynolds Auditorium will forestall another such mishap.