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The Winston-Salem Symphony offered the first of its Classics Series concerts for the 2020-21 season. Timothy Redmond, beginning his second season as the orchestra's music director, conducted. The Winston-Salem Symphony, like other arts organizations, is gradually finding its way to new performance modalities. They have given outdoor concerts with socially-distanced audiences; this performance was held in the Stevens Center of the North Carolina School of the Arts, likewise for a reduced, socially-distanced audience.
The orchestra itself consisted of 25 players, about a third of its full size, playing at a safe distance from one another on the stage. In what could be a healthy, exciting outgrowth of adaptations spurred by the covid pandemic, the concert was also offered online. This allows performers to reach many more listeners and in far-flung places, a horizon for audience expansion which stands to have great benefit for arts organizations and the performing arts in general. One can easily imagine online streaming of performances evolving into a permanent norm.
The first work was the Overture to Rossini's Barber of Seville. The opening was energetic, and rich sound came from the modest-sized orchestra. Redmond led with dynamism. Yet the performance didn't fully convey the bubbling effervescence of the piece. For one thing, it was rather slower than the crackling tempo called for in this introduction to one of opera's great comic masterpieces. The humorous dynamic contrasts could have been stronger. Important too was the articulation, which needed to be sharper; this is an essential aspect of, for instance, the five-note leading idea of the overture. Taken together, the performance, while enjoyable, lacked excitement, though the coda did build up to a lively peak. One should mention the appealing lyrical lines played by the winds; they had skillful phrasing.
The next work was by a rising younger composer, Anna Clyne, who has had substantial recent professional success. She has been composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony, among others. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the London Sinfonietta are among those who have commissioned her works. She has a substantial catalogue of music for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and voice.
The work on this concert was commissioned by an international group of three orchestras and had its world premiere in 2019. This performance by the Winston-Salem Symphony was the American premiere of the piece. It is a pleasure to hear performances in our state of works by younger composers. Both these gifted creative figures and our audiences are the beneficiaries of the musical initiative of Redmond, this orchestra, and others who are giving such music an opportunity to be heard.
Clyne's new work is called Sound and Fury. The title derives from the famous soliloquy in the fifth act of Macbeth in which this phrase appears. The allusion to the theater is intentional; Clyne's piece draws on the material of a Haydn Symphony – his audacious 60th – likewise having connection with the theater. The material of the piece is a duality between rushing, agitated string figures on the one hand, and more lyrical sections on the other. There is restless energy in the string passages and a fair amount of dissonance, contrasted with the calmer tonal nature of the lyrical sections. The alternation allows the duality to evolve as the piece progresses.
A standout passage was a chime-like section – which actually didn't contain any chimes – that perhaps portended the character of the Macbeth segment to come. Macbeth's actual soliloquy is spoken (not sung) in the fifth section of the piece, where the composer, according to her program note, "looped a harmonic progression from Haydn's Adagio in [the symphony]" as "a bed of sound to support the delivery" of the sound and fury speech.
The music created a strong atmosphere around these timeless words of surrender of life's meaning, especially as expressively read by Bill Barclay, formerly the music director of the Globe Theatre in London. To this listener, the speech – intriguing, even striking as it was – was nonetheless not musically integral. One could imagine it being effective as an epigraph to the piece, read along with the title, as opposed to being actually heard.
That said, the peroration of Sound and Fury accumulates as the dissonant rushing figure spreads to the entire orchestra and congeals in a unison on the powerful last note. This is a piece with imagination and richness of reference which deserves repeated hearings to be fully experienced.
The performance carried the piece well. It is challenging to bring a new work to performance, and especially to do so successfully. If one were to express a reservation, it would be in the wish for still more hectic, more raw energy in the racing string figures. That said, the lyrical sections were very projective, and the trajectory of the piece as a whole was well-rendered.
The program ended with Haydn's final Symphony, No. 104, subtitled, appropriately to the theme of this concert, "The London." In reality, all of his last twelve symphonies could carry that subtitle, as all were written during Haydn's triumphantly successful years there, and they count among the greatest works by anybody – from the composer's period, as one commentator put it, of "supreme mastery."
The first movement had an imposing beginning, and an expressive, heavy feeling in the treading contrasting figure. In the upbeat main idea, one would have wished for sharper articulation, a livelier projection carrying the overall character of the movement. The forte motive did develop some strong rhythm.
The second movement was graceful, with nicely drawn-out phrases. Full disclosure: the video cut out somewhere after the 2-minute mark and was off for several minutes. This is always the potential with a live-streamed performance, one could call it in the nature of the medium. This listener eventually tried refreshing the streaming, after which there were no further problems. In any case, he rejoined the performance somewhat before the return, in the midst of a quietly-expressive passage in the minor mode; it was a strong moment, finely played by the orchestra's wind section.
The third movement is a muscular, strutting minuet. It develops a dramatic crescendo, including in the timpani, which the orchestra played extremely well. It is striking how, even in the courtly minuet, that Haydn could bring power and his own imaginative stamp. The trio was graceful with attractive solo playing.
The final movement, beginning with a drone, had drama and rhythmic drive. The rhythm in the accompaniment was strong. There was a portentious minor mode tone before the second return. This movement was very successful, played with energy and propulsion, and brought the concert to an exciting conclusion.
Maestro Redmond introduced each piece with spoken commentary. This was both helpful and well-presented. He treated it like a story and brought the listener into involvement with the music to come. It would have been further helpful for information to be given on the screen itself. This has become standard: the title of each piece, the name of the composer (and the conductor for that matter), and the tempo indications of the movements. In lieu of a printed program, and even if there are online program notes to go with the event, this could be considered a part of the streaming medium now joining our concert-going landscape.
It is a pleasure to see the Winston-Salem Symphony joining this firmament and bringing its excellent performances to a hopefully growing audience.