Downtown revitalization in Winston-Salem is beginning to produce signs of attractive urban life. A weekend street fair has celebrated the improvements around the Stevens Center area as well as the return of Fourth Street to two-way traffic. Nice benches allowed a critic to savor the New York Times before the box office opened for the September 22 matinee performance of the first concert of the Winston-Salem Symphony's Classical Series. Sidewalk tables were crowded at a nearby restaurant, one of several signs of the growth of new businesses in the area.
Two war horses of the Romantic repertory sandwiched Peter Schickele's Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra which had received its premiere two years ago (to the day) at concerts given by the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium. The featured soloists on that occasion were the commissioning ensemble, the New Century Saxophone Quartet, who were again the soloists for the Stevens Center performance. Schickele had been so late completing the score for the premiere that no notes were in the program book and, with perhaps the excuse of a tight budget, none were in the WSS program. For a pre- CVNC online publication I reviewed the second NCS concert and a "Meet the Composer" session at Peace College. Schickele said then that "despite an early prejudice against the saxophone... he had become intrigued by the saxophone quartet's unique blend of sound, which is enhanced by the fact that the ranges of the soprano, tenor, alto and baritone saxes overlap and each is but a fifth apart." The Concerto is in five movements, played without pause; the first three and the last are very short, and most of the music is in the delightful "Variations" (4th) movement. The opening "Fanfare" is for the orchestra alone and features pizzicato strings, lively woodwinds and a jazzy feel. The saxophone quartet enters in the slow "Dream Waltz," which in Winston-Salem allowed appreciation of the blending of the sounds. The composer has aptly described the third movement, "Commotion," as "a lot of notes with much harmonic motion." Each sax entered "an eighth note after the other." Their parts are canonic, as are the (orchestra) woodwind parts, later. More substantial was the long, ingenious "Variations" movement which is "based on a very diverse treatment of the bass line from Bach's Goldberg Variations. Among other things, Schickele uses the line melodically, high in the orchestra. He "bunched it up upon itself and used jazzy displacement." One variation has muted trombones accompanied by pizzicato strings, and blues style is applied in another. A siren, less prominent in Winston-Salem than in Raleigh, was just one feature of the fast and furious "Exit Music," which could have accompanied a burlesque routine. This performance, conducted by Peter Perret, was just as enjoyable as the earlier one, conducted by Gerhardt Zimmermann.
Having heard the piece several times, I have mixed feelings. I enjoy it but find that it is too good for the low level of current pops-concert programming while it is perhaps not quite strong enough to be a regular part of the "serious" repertory. If only the whole thing were at the same level as the "Variations" movement!
At the very least, serious composers ought to consider the potential of the saxophone quartet. As a treat for their many fans, the NCSQ played a spirited, fun piece from their first CD recording, "The Piggly Wiggly." With Perret directing the orchestra, the big band era was brought to life with four Duke Ellington hits -"Satin Doll," "Star- Crossed Lovers," "Caravan," and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Don't Have That Swing" - arranged by the orchestra's second clarinetist, Ron Rudkin, a faculty member at the NCSA.
The members of this pioneering and versatile group were all, at one time or another, students of James Houlik at the North Carolina School of the Arts, so this was very much a homecoming concert. The "big band" sound seemed to come naturally to the orchestra. The brass and percussion were especially in the groove.
Perret opened the concert with a well-paced and balanced performance of the Prelude to Wagner's Die Meistersinger. A good, full orchestral sound was elicited, and there was fine work from the strings, woodwinds and brass.
A refreshing look at well-worn war-horse, Rimsky-Korsakov's colorful Scheherazade, Op. 35, ended the concert. Phrasing and orchestral balance were excellent and string ensemble was very exact. All sections of the orchestra were in fine mettle, and there were many good solos. Concertmistress Corine Brouwer was outstanding in her extensive solos as the voice of Scheherezade; her intonation and steady tone in the high, exposed notes in the last movement were astonishing. Any appearance by veteran bassoonist Mark Popkin is always eagerly anticipated, and he was sovereign in his extensive solos throughout. Showing sensitivity toward divergent schools of performance practice rarely found in the West, Perret was (presumably) responsible for having solo horn Fredrick Bergstone play with a very wide vibrato, characteristic of the French School of horn playing and shared or even exaggerated by the Russians. This was a rare treat for those who savor diverse National traditions of instrumental playing. Other significant solos were given by Robert Marsh, Principal Cello, and Nathan Williams, Principal Clarinet.