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One validation of the musicianship of an orchestra and its music director is how well they bring out the thrill of rediscovery from often-performed "war-horses." Dmitry Sitkovetsky and the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra delivered the goods in spades on February 24, in Greensboro's War Memorial Auditorium. Themes of homesickness and cultural cross-pollination lurked in a program that featured works by George Gershwin and Antonín Dvorák.
During the "Meet the Artists" session after the concert, Sitkovetsky mused over the fact that the British orchestras he has conducted had great difficulty capturing the frisson of New York style jazz. They could do Sibelius, the Russians, etc., but that special snap and sparkle eluded them. His Russian orchestras quickly picked it up since its bustling spirit is much like Moscow's and because Russia has its own jazz tradition dating back to the 20s. He and his Greensboro musicians were "hot-wired" in their sizzling performances of two Gershwin classics, An American in Paris and the Piano Concerto in F. The rhythms and cross rhythms were crystal clear, the attacks were hair-triggered, and rapid changes turned on dimes. Every section played at its peak. Among the many outstanding extended soloists in both works were clarinetist Kelly Burke, oboist Cara Fish, trumpeter Anita Cirba, and Concertmaster John Fadial. A bluesy bass clarinet and tight ensemble between the trombones and trumpets were just some of the spicy flavors of the evening.
Piano soloist Jeffrey Biegel related how encountering the critical editions of Gershwin's works led him to an entirely different approach to the composer. Gershwin's effervescent scores had had their originality overlaid by editors from the European Romantic tradition. In addition, anachronisms had crept into the playing tradition, such as playing the Piano Concerto with a 1930s swing rhythm instead of using 1920s ragtime style. Biegel abandoned his Chopin-style arpeggios and went back to the composer's unvarnished first thoughts. All of this was evident in a "white hot" performance with unbroken intensity and clear focus. The piece can sound at cross-purposes or diffuse, but this was the finest live performance I have yet heard. The highlight was the wonderful nocturne-like slow movement, a gorgeous piece of blues played as chamber music with the dialogue shared among the soloist, the woodwinds, and Cirba's brilliant and sensitive extended trumpet solo. The last few measures required some quick "winging," as Biegel later described it, since the damper pedal suddenly failed. This prevented his playing an encore in response to the enthusiastic audience.
I cannot recall how many times I have heard Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 ("From the New World"), in Greensboro, much less statewide. War-horses do not get much more equestrian than this. The true measure of a music director is the degree to which he can engage hardened concert goers and even more jaded orchestra players in order to recreate such a well-known work so it seems fresh and recently minted. New insights help, but there's no substitute for trusting the composer, shaking off dull routine, and approaching the music as if it were new. Without any gimmicky innovations, Sitkovetsky's interpretation succeeded in sweeping up everyone, this jaded critic included, in his glowing and vital view of the work. Instead of merely sitting and counting rests, the players could be seen actively listening to their colleagues in other sections. A master string player's attention was evident in the precise attacks, closely matched ensemble, and warm sound of all the string sections. The brass playing was superb, as was that of the woodwinds.
English horn soloist Ana Lampidis phrased the famous slow movement melody gorgeously. The tempos gave room for the melodies to breathe, but the phrasing was never sentimentalized. Sitkovetsky gave full value to the composer's silences.
The first program of the GSO's 2004-5 season – the Overture to Rossini's The Barber of Seville and Brahms' First Symphony – is now available on CD, and a "premium" CD, for new and renewing subscribers, features selected recordings by Sitkovetsky, including one made when he was 4 years old and recordings of his famous father and mother, together with comments by the conductor. Call 336/335-5456, ext. 223 for details.