It is always interesting and informative to watch a guest conductor lead one's local orchestra in a concert after only four rehearsals – not unlike watching one's wife dancing in the arms of another man – intriguing, exciting and often revealing. And so it was when visiting Maestro Mark Stringer lifted his arms to lead the Winston-Salem Symphony in three works which were never performed during the lifetimes of their composers, two familiar works by beloved composers and an unfamiliar double concerto by the great late British composer, Benjamin Britten, exquisitely performed by concertmaster Daniel Skidmore and principal violist Simon Ertz.
The work by Britten was begun in his youth (age 19) and never finished, for whatever reason, until it was completed and orchestrated posthumously by Colin Matthews in 1997. Skidmore has been serving as concertmaster of the Winston-Salem Symphony while Corine Brouwer takes a year's sabbatical leave. His tone was lovely and pure with impeccable intonation and a vibrato which seemed intentionally matched to that of his colleague, violist Simon Ertz. Ertz is also graced with a lovely warm tone, although a couple of high passages near the beginning were momentarily jinxed by less than perfect intonation. A jagged theme consisting mostly of fourths and fifths opens the work, reappearing again near the end of the third movement. Apart from admiring the beautiful tone and lovely playing of the two soloists, I was struck by the ostinato tympani, played with wooden sticks, and repeating the triple rhythm in the third movement – and the subtle shift to the more complex 6/8 before bringing back the jagged theme from the first movement. What a welcome addition to the concerto repertory!
The concert opened with the most famous work by Franz Schubert, his Unfinished Eighth Symphony in B minor, a work composed by Schubert in his mid-20s but abandoned after completing only two movements, although sketching a third. Maestro Singer's choice of tempos was fresh and pleasing, and he did his best to expand the Winston-Salem Symphony's palate of dynamics. Unfortunately, the small size of the string section (34 musicians) only made the pianissimo sound thin and threadbare, and the usually jovial second theme introduced by the cellos felt precarious rather than gemütlich. However, it was a pleasure to hear the often tampered-with dissonant chord before the repeat and again before the closing chords played as originally intended.
The leisurely Andante con moto of the second movement fared better, although the softness evidently imposed by the conductor seemed to inhibit the lovely clarinet solo from developing his full expressiveness. When the trombones entered with the forte chorale, the contrast was magnificent, if somewhat exaggerated. The mysterious ending, with its enharmonic spelling of the tonic (C-flat) was anticlimactic after all the previous hyper-pianissimi.
The many problematic "fp>" markings in the score were not handled consistently, being, according to some scholars, a shorthand notation particular to Schubert to indicate "f > p" (forte-diminuendo-piano). But, as the conductor remarked in a post-concert question and answer session, the Unfinished Symphony may be unfinished, but it is certainly not incomplete!
After intermission, we were treated to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's last symphony, No. 41 in C, often called the "Jupiter." Here Maestro Springer gave us some fresh and unexpected tempos in the inner movements, and led by guest concertmaster Kevin Lawrence, a distinguished faculty member of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, some inspired and gutsy string playing in the first and last movements. The Allegretto of the Minuet was briskly taken in one beat to a measure and the short Trio found the second violins anachronistically anticipating the second beat with a lilt more associated with the Strauss family and made popular in the mid-20th century by Willi Boskovsky.
The orchestra appeared to enjoy the brief encounter with the itinerant maestro, following his every intention with the rapt attention of the perfect tango partner.
The concert repeats Tuesday evening, November 15, 2016 at 7:30 pm. See sidebar for details.