Concert programs are not set in stone and, as Burns wrote "'The schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." Greensboro Symphony Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky had planned a splendid weekend of orchestral and chamber music programs built around cellist Lynn Harrell and his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale. The impending birth of a bairn (Scottish for child) nixed that. Sitkovetsky's replacement soloist was the well-known Canadian-born American cellist Gary Hoffman. A student of Janos Starker, Hoffman has been heard in the Triangle on the Chamber Arts Series at Duke University. He performs on a 1662 Nicolo Amati cello, the "ex-Leonard Rose."
Sitkovetsky dropped the scheduled Handel-Halversen Passacaglia for Violin and Cello in order to allow for a more substantial Mozart substitution. He was able to retain four selections from Dvorák's Cypresses, B.152, for string quartet. This set of pieces began as eighteen songs written in just two weeks in 1865. These songs of unrequited love resulted from Dvorák's unsuccessful wooing of his pupil, the young actress Josefía Cermáková, the elder sister of the singer Anna Cermáková, who eventually became his wife. In 1887, the composer arranged twelve of the songs for string quartet. Typically, one instrument "sings" the melody to gentle accompaniment of the other strings. Sitkovetsky took the first violin and added violinist Jean Sykes and violist Diane Phoenix-Neal from the GSO to cellist Hoffman. Cypress No. 2, "Death Reigns in Many a Human Breast," featured Sitkovetsky's focused and robust tone soaring above gentle tremolos and plucked strings. His intonation was precise. The plangent sound of the viola sang with wistful melancholy throughout No. 5, "The Old Letter in My Book." Each player in turn had a chance to sing in No. 7, "I Wander oft Past Yonder House." Number 11, "Nature Lies Peaceful in Slumber and Dreaming," found the first violin singing a complex song in and out of a playful accompaniment. All of this music is fresh and charming and ought to be mined as encore selections by quartets.
While Mozart's scheduled String Quintet in C, K.515, was missed, no one could complain about its replacement, the composer's Divertimento in E-flat, K.563, for violin, viola, and cello. It is the first and still the finest string trio ever composed. It was written just after the last three symphonies in September of 1788 and is on a comparably exalted level. It was meant for Mozart's fellow Mason and patron Michael Puchberg. There is nothing "light" or "little" about this divertimento, a form that usually served as highbrow background music for parties. The composer retained the traditional six movements but with the two minuets having two trios.
In order to offset any "thinness" of sound, the composer uses double-stops at a few points to create a more dense quartet-like tone. To heighten contrast in the andante variation movement, the theme is introduced in a doubled octave, two-part harmony that makes the real three-voice sound fuller. Melodies as worthy as those in his greatest operas abound throughout all the movements. The opening allegro and adagio are in the composer's "learned" style.
Principal violist Scott Rawls, joined Music Director Sitkovetsky on violin and guest cellist Hoffman for an engaging performance in which chamber music's joyful give and take bamong equals was ever present. Closely-matched intonation and phrasing were a given, and each artist brought a rich variety to dynamics and color to his part. The audience was so drawn into the work that its some 50 minutes seemed half as long.