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Eastern Music Festival 2003 Overview: Week IV

July 19, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:


Anticipation of what in essence could be called "Dmitry Sitkovetsky Week" at the Eastern Music Festival guaranteed a very good house in Dana Auditorium July 15. It was quite a coup when the Greensboro Symphony selected the multi-talented and world-class violin virtuoso to be its new Music Director. This should go far in taking that fine orchestra to the next level and providing an opportunity for bringing in exciting new talent and programming. Adding to the excitement in the Triad is the fact that Sitkovetsky is a candidate for the position of Music Director of the Eastern Music Festival. He has been a highly successful festival director over many years - at the Korsholm Music Festival in Finland (1983-1993), Umea, in Sweden (1991-1993), and in Seattle (1992-1997) and Baku, Azerbaijan (1999). He is currently the Principal Guest Conductor of the Russian State Symphony in Moscow.

A CVNC colleague and I both agreed that the dominant impression we had from the opening work, C.P.E. Bach's Concerto in D Minor, H.426, for flute and strings, was one of gracious elegance. Sitkovetsky conducted a chamber orchestra of eight violins (with violins I and II facing each other on either side), two violas, two cellos, a double bass, and harpsichord continuo, played by Gideon Rubin. The antiphonal arrangement of the violin sections for this quasi-Baroque/Classical concerto was a delight to this critic. The superb and stylish soloist was Bonita Boyd, whose refined and sensitive rendition was a very welcome relief from the "over-blown" playing of certain big name soloists. This work wasn't a struggle between soloist and orchestra; rather, it was more like true chamber music, and Boyd's solo line was given gentle accompaniment by parts of the ensemble. A first movement duet involving the soloist and the first violins in the lower range was striking, as were her duets with cellist Pablo Mahave-Veglia in both the first and second movements. The fast and turbulent last movement was reminiscent of the " Sturm und Drang " style used in C.P.E.B.'s bracing sets of string symphonies. The earlier movements were in his "gallant" style. Boyd's breath control was amazing as she raced through all those rapid runs and trills. Bravo to all!

Arie mit verschiedenen Veränderungen ( Aria with diverse variations ) is the unassuming title for one of the monuments of the keyboard literature in which, according to John Butt, in the Oxford Companion to J.S. Bach, the composer "uses virtually every stylistic and affective device at his disposal... provid(ing) a comprehensive, encylopaedic view of his musical world through the focus of a single harmonic form." The work is more familiarly know as the "Goldberg" Variations, composed to be played by Bach's student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who was in the service of the Russian ambassador in Dresden, Count von Keyserlingk, an insomniac; Goldberg's playing was intended to make the Count's sleepless nights more bearable. Steven Ledbetter's excellent program notes succinctly describe the multiple architectural features of this set of variations, built upon the harmony, not the "richly ornamented tune of the aria. Every third variation is also a canon in three parts (two imitative voices over the bass... except the last canon). Each canon is constructed with a larger pitch interval between the two voices than the one before. Further, from number five, every third variation has the character of a showpiece and the crowning glory of this series is the richly ornamented chromatic Adagio of Variation 25, one of only three minor-key variations in the cycle." Sitkovetsky arranged this keyboard work in two versions, a chamber orchestra version using forces about the size of the opening C.P.E. Bach Concerto (and recorded by Nonesuch Records), and the string trio version, played at the EMF with by Sitkovetsky with violist Barbara Hamilton and cellist Neal Cary. The distribution of parts was remarkably even with each instrument sharing in the glory in turn. Other than a false start on one variation and one doubtful note in another, the ensemble was stunning as parts were smoothly passed from instrument to instrument. Balance and phrasing were excellent. I filled a page with notes about the different and constantly changing voice pairings above changing bass roles.

Sitkovetsky set the Piedmont's artistic bar high at his July 16 special concert, given with a pared-down Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra. His restrained but expressive manner of conducting is worthy of emulation. He secured very tight ensemble, a wide and appropriate dynamic range, and outstanding solo playing from the principals.

Any conductor who divides the two violin sections on either side of the podium gets all my "bonus points." In music of the Classical period, this division helps to bring out the interesting and independent parts that can be missed when all the violins are massed together. The set-up was ideal for one of the finest live performances of a Haydn symphony that I have ever heard. Symphony No. 102, in B-flat, is among the composer's briefest as well as richest. The slow introduction was perfectly judged, and the fast movement abounded in orchestral detail that featured spirited playing from the flutes, led by Les Rogers, and the other woodwinds. Cary gave a burnished account of the extensive cello solos in the second and third movements. Another highlight was the pure chamber music quality of the Menuet's trio - played by oboist Eric Olson, bassoonist Cedric Coleman and Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer. The finale was chock full of Haydn's humorous touches.

Sitkovetsky made use of two music stands - one for the orchestral score, the other for his solo part - while he played two brief but jewel-like movements by Mozart, the Adagio in E, K.261, and the Rondo in C, K.373, both for violin and orchestra. The composer provides no cover, and Sitkovetsky's flawless intonation and phasing were enough to take ones' breath away, and his control and balancing of the orchestra were likewise perfectly executed.

Mastery of true French style was evident in Debussy's Danses sacrée et profane , for harp and strings. Delicate string filigree surrounded soloist Anna-Kate Mackle's superb rendition. She is the Principal Harp of Stephan Sanderling's Florida Philharmonic, having previously served as principal in both the New World Symphony and at both Spoleto festivals.

A wonderfully characterized and pungent performance of the Pulcinella Suite , by Igor Stravinsky, brought the Dana Auditorium audience to its feet for a prolonged standing ovation. Rhythms were well sprung and every section and principal played at top form. Multer and Cary had extensive solos. Olson, accompanied by the violas, was memorable in the second movement, as were some remarkable bell-like pizzicatos, later. The brasses were delightfully brash. A comic highlight came with euphonious low notes of the duet between Leonid Finkelshteyn's double bass and Gregory Cox's trombone. The "chorale-like" song of the bassoons of Colemann and Karla Ekholm and the horns of Leslie Norton and Amy Handelman was among the other gems.

Both of this week's concerts featuring all-student orchestras were rendered with high levels of individual and ensemble polish. Both were heard by substantial and enthusiastic audiences, and there was certainly no lack of fervor on the players' parts.

Aspects of orchestral color and scoring seemed to be a subtext of the July 17 concert, conducted by Scott Sandmeier, who took great care with nuances and dynamics and gave precise attention to rhythm and ensemble cohesion. A too-seldom-programmed jewel of American Impressionism, Charles Tomlinson Griffes' The White Peacock , opened the program. Against a gossamer orchestral texture, aptly described by Steven Ledbetter as "sultry and languid in its evocation of a sunlit garden," the rise and fall of the solo oboe (played by Nickolas Stoval) embodied a wandering white peacock. The ending was very quiet and unresolved. One could hear the influences of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky's Firebird in Griffes' lovely score.

Sandmeier directed a "white hot" reading of the Scheherazade of the great Russian master of orchestration, Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov, that breathed plenty of life into that oft'-raced warhorse. The intensity and commitment drew in the listener. The interpretation was well within traditional bounds but without the drag of any sense of the routine. All sections of the orchestra have played at their peak so far this season. The superb and extensive violin solos were played by Concertmistress Shanna Swarington, from Wilkesboro, in Wilkes County. Other beautifully-characterized solos were given by cellist Laura Ewing, clarinetist Sarah Lloyd, oboist Stoval, flutist Alisha Kravitz, bassoonists Paul Curtis and Zach Morgan, trumpet Karin Bliznik, and trombonist Andrew Bodony.

A big chunk of time was taken up with extensive and very necessary background information given by percussionist and composer Donald Knaack about his piece, "The Environmental Continuum," which received its world premiere at this performance. It was commissioned by the EMF, the Louisville Youth Orchestra, and the Mansfield (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra. Knaack earned his nickname, "the Junkman," through his use of items "found" in junkyards that are arrayed in groups and played by striking them. The orchestra was radically reseated - the woodwinds were behind the two violin sections on the left and the double basses were in front of the cellists and violists on the right. The composer played and improvised on three clusters of "objects." On the left was his "kitchen," consisting of bottles, pots, pans, tubing, etc. Stage right looked like a garage's castaways - a xylophone made of hub caps, a car fender, another xylophone made of 85-year-old wrenches, and a transmission cover, to name but a few! At the back of the stage, dead center, were some old snow boards and various containers. The composer wandered among these sets beating various complex rhythms while luxuriating in the color and timbre. The orchestra executed various rhythms or - more often - provided quiet, complex textures, for contrast. Near the end, members of the audience were invited to "jam" - briefly - with the composer and the orchestra. Sandmeier excelled in holding everyone together throughout this unusual piece. Since I dislike both "found objects" in visual art and in music, I was surprised that I tolerated the work better than I had expected. It is definitely too long - by at least ten minutes - but much of the orchestral scoring is intriguing. Using three percussionists would eliminate a lot of time consumed by the composer/performer traveling between the groups - or maybe banging away on something portable would help. If it were tightened up a bit, this might make a nice novelty for pops or educational concerts. It certainly seemed to attract a young - in some cases, very young - audience.

Crowd pleasing orchestral virtuosity dominated the July 18 all-student orchestra concert, given refined and elegant direction by José-Luis Novo. The night's threatening storms were more than echoed in a searing performance of the Overture to Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman . String ensemble was tight, and the evening found the woodwinds, brasses, and timpani in glorious form. The orchestral balances were excellent, and the phrasing was both dramatic and idiomatic. The brass sections and timpanist Matthew Bodony whipped up quite a storm. The music of Senta's ballad was perfectly realized by oboist Keren Osgood, and her subtle duet with principal horn Laura Carter was a highlight.

The newest member of the piano faculty was given a chance to wow the crowd with the Symphonic Variations by César Franck. Yoshikazu Nagai, who lacks no element of technique or artistry, projected dynamics from ppp to ff with no spreading of tone or intonation, crisp and clear articulation in the fastest passages, and trills aplenty. Novo wove the plush Franckian orchestral tapestry needed, and the chamber music-like dialogs between the pianist and section soloists went well.

Zoltan Kodály's "Peacock" Variations (on an Hungarian folk song) received a stirring performance full of national character that compared favorably with an Hungarian recording that I used to refresh my memories of the score. The lower strings seemed bottomless in the rich opening section, and the low notes from the bass section were delicious as the score proceeded. The horns improved after a little uncertainty at the first entrance, at a low dynamic level. A slow variation had a soulful dialog between oboist Jonna Boldin and clarinetist Robert Carrillo, who had played a fine duet with bassoonist Jose Axel Carrillo a bit earlier. The flutes, led by Ceora Jaffe, the trumpets, led by Greg Haro, and the horns, led by Carter, were outstanding in the closing variations. Concertmistress Stefani Collins played her extended solo in the finale like the winner of many concerto contests that she is. We had already heard her play part of the finale of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at Pamela Frank's masterclass, and she will give the whole movement at the penultimate student concert on July 25, along with the other EMF Concerto Contest winners.

Well-deserved and prolonged applause and curtain calls greeted the end of the July 19 Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra concert, which capped what might be called " Dmitry Sitkovetsky Week" at the Eastern Music Festival. The designated new Music Director of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra had ample opportunity to display the many aspects of his artistic talent - violin virtuoso, chamber musician, conductor, and successful musical arranger. All EMF programs had inserts of the new GSO season, a welcome gesture of co-operation between the organizations. In addition, Sitkovetsky is also a potential candidate for Music Director of the EMF, as have been all of this season's guest conductors.

It would be hard to imagine a better performance of the Classical Symphony, Op. 25, by Sergei Prokofiev, that opened the program. With first-rate playing from all sections, string articulation and ensemble were outstanding, tempos were ideal, and nothing was rushed for shallow show. Reseating of the large chamber orchestra contributed to the unusually clarity of inner voices: the first and second violins faced each outer at the front of the stage on either side of the conductor, the cellos and double basses were seated behind the first violins, and the violas were behind the seconds. This helped definition when the two violin sections had independent parts. The brasses were back of the violas, the woodwinds were in the center, and the timpanist was in the middle, behind all the rest.

Menahem Pressler's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17, in G Minor, K.453, was a model of classical style; he played with seasoned grace and elegance, using a score, and not a note was out of place in the unprotected line. Sitkovetsky and the orchestra fitted their accompaniment like a glove. After several curtain calls, Pressler played Chopin's Nocturne in D Minor, Op. posth. Without false sentimentality, he presented the polished purity of line and heart-felt emotion of the piece.

According to Richard E. Rodda's notes for Telarc CD 80387, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt "calls his manner of composition 'tintinnabulation,' from the Latin word for bells. The composer explains that 'I work with very few elements - with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of the triad are like bells.'" Continuing, Rodda writes that "'Fratres' ('Brothers') was composed for combined wind and string quintets, in 1977." Rodda suggests that the piece "is based on the repetitions of an austere, hymn-like theme played above a continuous drone on the interval of an open fifth." The composer later made more than half a dozen arrangements of "Fratres," including the version for violin and strings used at the EMF, in which Sitkovetsky was both soloist and conductor. The plangent sounds of his violin alone opened the piece with a sort of prelude, filled with flourishes and showy commentary, that later blended with or soared above the more static chant-like writing for the string orchestra.

Like the wonderful earlier performance of Haydn Symphony No. 102, the concluding Symphony No. 36, in C, K.425 ("Linz"), by Mozart, was a model of classical style that we in the Triad and Triangle have too seldom heard. The textures were crisp and clear, and there was outstanding string articulation, enhanced by Sitkovetsky's reseating of the orchestra. The balances were excellent. The third movement had lovely solos by Concertmaster John Fadial and cellist Amy Frost Baumgarten. (The string principals on July 16 and 19 were not the same.) Conversations at intermission and afterward revealed high anticipation for the outlook of the Greensboro Symphony as Sitkovetsky takes its helm.