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On January 20, a Sitkovetsky and Friends Chamber Music Series concert, given in the Recital Hall of the UNC Greensboro School of Music, demonstrated the depth of musicianship within the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and featured visiting soloists in the most intimate form of ensemble playing. Two regular section members joined a mix of four principal players, the associate Concertmaster, and two guest soloists for two very different quintets.
Beethoven modeled his Quintet in E-flat, Op. 16 (for piano and winds), after Mozart's K.452 Quintet in the same key and for the same forces. Mozart's has tended to overshadow Beethoven's in the public arena. Some scholars speculate that Op. 16 may have been started as early as 1794, but it was not published until 1801, when Mozart's work was enjoying a revival. Just as Brahms suffered from Robert Schumann's anointing him as Beethoven's successor, so Beethoven may have felt similar unease after an article by Christian Gottlob Neefe, the composer's teacher in Bonn, appeared in Carl Friedrich Cramer's Magazin der Musik in 1783. As translated in an Academy of Ancient Music website article by Cliff Eisen, Neefe quoted from Beethoven's patron Count Waldstein: "Through your unceasing diligence, receive Mozart's spirit from the hands of Haydn." Opus 16 was written after Beethoven's uneasy period of study with Haydn. In contrast to Mozart's evenhanded blending and give-and-take among the instruments, Beethoven hews closer to the concerto or symphonic model, scoring the block of winds against the solo piano. The first movement has a Grave opening leading to a lovely transition lyrical sonata-form Allegro non troppo with a false recapitulation. The delicate and lovely Andante cantabile gives plenty of scope for each of the winds to sing. The lively finale is a real "foot-tapper," a fun piece that gives everyone ample chance to show virtuosity.
Moldavian-born pianist Alexander Paley was irrepressible at the keyboard. His control of balance with the winds, his lightning attacks and parries, and his plethora of facial expressions made for an exhilarating performance. The superb GSO principal players were oboist Ashley Barret, clarinetist Kelly Burke, and bassoonist Carol Bernstorf. After a few slight burbles in the first movement, horn player Lynn Beck held her own against her colleagues' high standards. Delightful as the playing of the last movement of Opus 16 was, their surprise encore of it was even better as each player threw caution to the winds and played with fiery intensity that took no prisoners. It was truly a white hot performance!
In remarks from the stage, Dmitri Sitkovetsky drew attention to the symphonic quality of most of Johannes Brahms' chamber music. This quality made his String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111, a fine companion for Op. 16, since Beethoven uses a similar approach. Brahms intended this to be his last composition and ceased writing for a year until his last "Indian Summer" period of late works. While the piece is nostalgic, it lacks a sense of bittersweet regret that strongly flavors most of his late works. A long, slow melody sung by the cello is nearly covered by the fulsome violins' and violas' faster accompaniment above it in the opening movement. A secondary theme begins with a viola duet, and another theme, characterized by a rising third, is played by the second violin. The second movement exploits implied keys to create variety and showcases the first viola, introducing the main theme and near the end; it soars high in a cadenza before bringing the movement to a resolution. The third movement features a wistful waltz-like theme and some gorgeous duets between the violins and violas. A Gypsy-dance-like rhythm dominates much of the boisterous and tuneful finale.
Music Director Sitkovetsky took the first violin part, joined by Associate Concertmaster Fabrice Dharamraj, Principal Violist Scott Rawls, violist Eric Koontz, and guest cellist Gary Hoffman. Despite the density of Brahms' scoring, tight ensemble and skillful balances kept all the musical lines clear. Sitkovetsky's full and warm tone was always welcome, as was his enthusiastic and unselfish collegiality. Dharamraj projected the secondary theme in the first movement with style and grace. The dark, baritone-like sound of Rawls' viola throughout the second movement was heartwarming. The third movement's dialogues between the violins and the violas were as satisfying as they were engaging. The audience was swept up in the insistent rhythms of the finale.