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The opening concerts of the 2005-06 season of the Winston-Salem Symphony, given in the Stevens Center on October 15, 16 and 18, were auspicious starts for newly-arrived Maestro Robert Moody. The orchestra's playing was energetic, attentive, and cohesive while the audiences were enthusiastic and effusive in showing their approval.
After a fast version of the National Anthem, the concert started with a bang with "A Short Ride in a Fast Machine" by the living American composer John Adams. Piedmont audiences are, by and large, unfamiliar with the "minimalist" style of contemporary music, which area orchestras rarely tackle with the exception of a couple of pieces by John Adams (the Winston-Salem Symphony played "The Chairman Dances" four years ago). The best known practitioners of the minimalist style are LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Adams, although minimalism has influenced composers from Henryk Górecki in Poland to Wake Forest's Composer-in-Residence Dan Locklair.
Adams, quoted in the NewMusicBox (http://www.newmusicbox.org/page.nmbx?id=31tp01), states that the "three cut and dried criteria for what constitutes a minimalist piece [are] regular, articulated pulse; the use of tonal harmony with slow harmonic rhythm; and the building of large structures through repetition of small cells." Minimalism grew out of a strong current in 20th-century music which featured repetitious rhythms and ostinato. Stravinsky provides many good examples, especially in early works like "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("Rite of Spring"). And both Rap and Hip-Hop music share this predilection for obstinate repetition. Hence there is a following for minimalism among younger music-lovers.
A screen, usually reserved for translated texts of operas (super-titles) was placed high over the front of the proscenium and used for cartoon-like graphics enhancing the affinity of "A Short Ride..." with race-car driving. It was cute from the orchestra level, where I heard the Saturday concert, but useless and annoying in the balcony, where the images were hidden behind suspended lighting equipment. Otherwise, the orchestra sounded good, with tight ensemble, good balance, and brilliant work in the percussion section.
The strings again sounded clean and crisp in the following Rossini overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, as did the slender sound of substitute principal oboist Michal Rogalski, playing the daunting opening solo of the familiar overture.
I remember, many years ago, watching the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf search for the "sweet spot" on a stage in London, counseled by her late husband, record producer Walter Legge. She wandered all over the stage trying to find the ideal position for her upcoming recital with Gerald Moore, her accompanist. Unfortunately, at Tuesday night's concert, Stephen Salter, the excellent baritone soloist, was not in the Stevens Center's "sweet spot," which in my experience is several yards upstage of where he chose to stand. His sweet voice wandered in and out of focus depending on which direction he turned, and he was often covered by the lower sounds of the orchestra. However, in the best passages, his voice was warm and enchanting. I was especially charmed by his expressive "Ging heut' morgen übers Feld," the second of the four songs which comprise Mahler's youthful Songs of a Wayfarer. The encore, the famous "Figaro" aria from Rossini's Barber of Seville, fared better as Salter entered from off-stage and actually crossed the "sweet spot" on his way to the front of the platform. Both works made use of the overhead screen to project the texts of the songs in English.
The entire second half of the classical concert was devoted to a youthful and exuberant rendering of Antonin Dvorák's famous Ninth Symphony, "From the New World." In his choice of tempos, Maestro Moody made it clear that he prefers the version of the Symphony that Brahms edited (so that it could go to press immediately) over the original critical edition. Apart from a couple of uneven entrances of the winds in the introduction to the first movement, the orchestra responded well to their new music director. The strings sounded warm if a bit sparse in the lower register, the brass, rich and well balanced, and the woodwinds, clean other than occasional problems with intonation. Special mention goes to Cara Fish for her splendid English horn solo in the rather brisk second movement of the symphony.
Maestro Moody's comments to the packed house on Saturday were witty as well as enlightening. They would also have been well received on Tuesday, October 18, had he chosen to make them. The "Saturday Nights Live" program excerpted some of the highlights from the classical program in the first half of the concert and featured Byron Stripling as the soloist in a tribute to Louis Armstrong in the second half. Both as a singer and on trumpet, Stripling was entertaining. "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" was a hit, as was "Mack the Knife." Several musicians from the orchestra were singled out for their contributions, especially clarinetist Ron Rudkin for his Dixieland-style clarinet.
Maestro Moody is clearly in charge of his ensemble. His baton technique is clear and his manner, engaging. His interpretation of the Dvorák exuded youthful exuberance that was well matched by the response of the orchestra. Yes, the Winston-Salem Symphony is in good hands!