Classical music used in movies was the hook that tied diverse music together on the last program of the Greensboro Symphony. Before each piece was played, War Memorial Auditorium was darkened, stills from the relevant movie were projected onto a lowered screen, and Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s remarks drew connections between the movie and the musical selection. Unlike music composed to “frame” movie action, traditional compositions have more than enough substance to stand alone without visual distractions.
The overture to Rossini's La Gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) was used in Sergio Leone's masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America. Sitkovetsky took great care with dynamics and the orchestra sections played with tight ensemble and with crisp attacks. An off-stage second snare drum added to the many nice effects.
One of the most memorable scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now was the massed helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village accompanied by the stormy music of "The Ride of the Valkyries” from the opening of Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Sitkovetsky secured a good, full string sound to support hearty playing from the brass sections. The horns, led by Robert Campbell, were having a particularly good night.
The next two selections usually would make for an odd juxtaposition. The fourth movement, “Adagietto,” from Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor was used in several scenes of Luchino Visconti's movie Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s novel. This elegiac and serene music is scored for strings alone, and the performance found the Greensboro Symphony players at the top of their form. Careful gradation of dynamics and phrasing along with the weaving of a seamless musical line were the focus of Sitkovetsky. The conductor dedicated this performance to the memory of the recently-deceased longtime former GSO music director, Peter Paul Fuchs.
The infamously brash surface effects of the next work were a complete contrast to the spiritual depth of the Mahler. Ravel’s hypnotic and obsessive "Boléro" was used in Blake Edwards’ romantic comedy 10. Sitkovetsky paced the buildup of this work perfectly from the barely audible rhythm of the snare drum to the brusque forte ending. This crucial instrument was played superbly by principal percussionist Wiley Sykes. To list all the many fine orchestral solos by principal players would take too much space but those given by flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta, clarinetist Kelly Burke, and oboist Mary Ashley Barret were memorable, as was Anita Cirba’s refined performance of the muted trumpet episode.
Everything came together in the featured concerto — Rachmaninov's monumental Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 — to produce the finest live performance of this piece* I have ever heard. Soloist Garrick Ohlsson has been a frequent visitor to the Triad and Triangle since he won the Gold Medal at the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. During the “Meet the Artists” after this performance, Ohlsson recalled spending some six weeks as a fifteen-year-old Juilliard School student meticulously studying this concerto with a stern Russian teacher. He said the “Rach Third” has more notes than any piano concerto in the repertoire other than the Busoni (which he also has performed and recorded).
Some performances of the Rachmaninov Third bring out its poetry while, more often, others focus on its knuckle-breaking virtuosity. Ohlsson wove the poetic opening passages magically while stormy display was given full throttle during the extended cadenzas. His refined piano tone was breath-taking from the most delicate quiet passages through the wonderfully focused forte passages. There was tight co-ordination between orchestral soloists and Ohlsson, and Sitkovetsky kept the orchestra perfectly balanced with his soloist. For an encore, Ohlsson gave a blazing performance of Rachmaninov's notorious Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2.