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There was no want of excitement for the musicians and administrators of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra last week. It is not every day that a regional orchestra takes on the challenge of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, with its demand for extra players and rehearsal time. Add to that the chaos that resulted from the illness of the scheduled soloist, Horatio Gutierrez, and his cancellation just days before rehearsals were to begin. Pianist Fabio Bidini was intercepted by his manager in a California airport just before he was to board a plane for Germany. He arrived in Greensboro with just hours to spare. None of this was evident in the February 23 concert in War Memorial Auditorium, led by Dmitry Sitkovetsky with his usual confidence and restrained elegance.
Beethoven broke new compositional ground with his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73, the first movement of which is longer than entire concertos by Haydn and Mozart. After its premiere, the January 1812 issue of Allgemeine Musik Zeitung opined: "It is without doubt one of the most original, imaginative, most effective but also one of the most difficult of all existing concertos." The masterful scoring for the keyboard and the majestic writing for the orchestra may have led to the apocryphal designation "Emperor" by one of Napoleon's French army officers who acclaimed it "an emperor among concertos."
There was no sign of any short-changed rehearsal time (in favor of the Stravinsky) in the way Sitkovetsky and his musicians meshed and wove about Bidini's brilliant and sensitive playing of the solo. He produced a gorgeous and warm tone at all dynamic levels. There were no coarse-grained crashing fortes here! His melodic lines were seamless, and his articulation was crystal clear. Bidini's playing was an ideal alloy of power, poetry, and style. In my memories of some thirty years of performances, this interpretation will join with one given by Claude Frank as a benchmark.
Bidini's feeling for musical poetry and style carried over in his selection of an encore and the exquisite execution of the arpeggios, trills, and melodies of Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp Minor, Op. 27/1. During the "Meet the Artists" session after the concert, he said chose the piece as a contrast and because of subtle musical relationships between it and elements of the second and third movements of the Beethoven concerto. (Fans may want to seek out Bidini's recital and chamber music recordings on the Texas-based Encore Performance Recordings' "ERR Legacy Series"; see http://www.eprgoldcds.com/.
The stage was packed with all the extra players needed for the Stravinsky. There were nine horns (headed by principal Robert Campbell), two tubas, two sets of timpani, and lots of added percussion – I had a clear view of a washboard – as well as other rare hardware. During "Meet the Artists comments, Sitkovetsky said it was the first time he had ever seen a bass trumpet. There was one extra stand of two players in the violas. The GSO regularly uses a larger string section than most of the state's orchestras. A patron counted 93 musicians on stage.
At the back of the orchestra there was a large screen upon which various paintings, photos, and drawings were projected during the performance. The illustrations ran the gamut from several photographs of Nijinsky's original choreography to some abstract art to scenes from later productions. Above the stage, super-titles identified each section of the ballet as it was played. After the concert, Sitkovetsky described this multimedia approach as "very much a work in progress." He alluded to the broad range of efforts orchestras are making in order to appeal to a younger generation that has been dominated by imagery. He solicited audience response and agreed with criticisms that ranged from the glare from the musicians' lamps, fuzzy focus, and washed-out color as problems that will need to be addressed in the future.
Le Sacre du Printemps seemed to rush by as the listener was drawn into its vortex of complex rhythms, unexpected accents, and constantly changing meters. The wide palette of orchestral color and timbre was enticing. The attacks were precise and ensemble was unerring as players and sections paired with or against each other. Sitkovetsky's interpretation was mainstream and vital as he secured the appropriate buildup of excitement and tension. All of the orchestra members played their hearts out. Space will only allow individual praise for a few. In 1912, the extended solo that opens the ballet broke new ground by exploiting the bassoon's highest range. Carol L. Bernstorff seemed to have limitless breath and control as she flawlessly shaped the famous prominent part. Principal Kelly Burke took up the shriller-sounding E-flat clarinet while her stand-mate Ed Riley played lead ("normal") clarinet. The low, fruity sounds of the bass clarinet cut through the orchestral texture; it was played by James Kalyn. The principal oboe part was phrased with superb control by Ashley Barret. The unique tinny sounds of the piccolo trumpet were spun by Anita Cirba as her stand-mate Ken Wilmot took up the principal trumpet part.