Was it the excitement of the climax of the Greensboro Symphony's audition of five candidates to succeed Stuart Malina as Music Director or the return of economic or national optimism that led to the fullest house in post 9-11 memory? The date was April 12, and the venue was Greensboro's War Memorial Auditorium. Guest conductor André Raphel Smith has several Triad and Triangle connections. He is a Durham native who once played trombone in the Duke String School Orchestra. He was a student at the Eastern Music Festival and has been a guest conductor there, too. He was an Assistant Conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra for six years and spent _ years as an assistant to Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic. At the informal post-concert session, "Meet the Artists," he answered a youngster's question about what inspired him to want to become a conductor: PBS's Previn and the Pittsburgh TV series, during the 1970s.
A good standard interpretation of the Overture to Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer opened the concert. The tempos and phrasing were fine, but the brass covered some important string parts. A friend who attended the first outing of the same program, on April 10, said this was a major improvement over a consistently-too-loud orchestra that night. There was some slight tentativeness in the horns, but Cara Fish's critical English horn solo was superb.
Very few caveats could be made about the assured performance of Johannes Brahms' Concerto in D, for violin and orchestra, given a probing interpretation by Kurt Nikkanen. Smith had orchestral balances well under control throughout and provided alert and sensitive accompaniment. Nikkanen coaxed a warm, full tone from his 1600 Gasparo Da Salò violin and offered resplendent phrasing and dazzling bowing and fingering technique. Virtuosity was subordinated to an individual and convincingly argued musical vision. Fish's playing of the famous oboe solo was, as usual, superb. After several curtain calls, Nikkanen gave a chaste reading of a sarabande from a Bach partita as an encore.
Unusually, the audience applauded after every movement, not just after the monumental opening one. This probably indicated an unusually large number of newcomers. May they get hooked on live performances of good music! After the concert, both artists said they welcomed applause sincerely given between movements and not just at the conclusion, as "concert etiquette" dictates. Rigid observance of concert etiquette can be a barrier to new audiences.
Smith brought the evening to a deep and glowing finish with a passionate performance of Sergei Rachmaninov's lush Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27. Of the three Triad and Triangle orchestras that I review, the Greensboro Symphony regularly fields the most violins, and this feature was fully exploited. Despite using a version involving composer-sanctioned cuts, the performance carried the listener forward like a gathering avalanche. Section blends and balances were excellent, and a good, solid low-string sound was maintained. I filled a page with notes about the plethora of splendid solos by many section leaders. Prominent were the English horn, oboe, clarinet, and mellifluous bass clarinet solos. The horn section was confident refulgent, not least in the third movement. The entire brass section was in top form. The viola section, led by Scott Rawls, and the cello section, led by Beth Vanderborgh, were clearly differentiated, and the double basses, led by John P. Spuller, have seldom sounded richer.
The first of this season's candidates for Music Director of the GSO was Markand Thakar, currently Music Director of the Duluth Superior Symphony. Like Smith, he was a student at the Eastern Music Festival and, later, a guest conductor there. He had an affinity for Slavic and Central European music. Thomas Wilkins, the second candidate, is in his second season as Resident Conductor of the Detroit Symphony and is completing his eighth season as the Resident Conductor of the Florida Orchestra in Tampa Bay. The third candidate, Korean-born Shinik Hahm, has several posts - Music Director of the Daejeon Philharmonic Orchestra (Korea), Music Director of the Tuscaloosa (Alabama) Symphony, Music Director of the Abilene Philharmonic, and Music Director of the Yale Symphony Orchestra - and maintains as well as an active guest conducting schedule. Noted violin virtuoso Dmitry Sitkovetsky, the fourth candidate, wowed audiences with a profound Beethoven Violin Concerto last season. The founding director of the NES Chamber Orchestra, currently the Principal Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, is also a candidate to succeed André-Michel Schub as Music Director of the EMF. The GSO's only woman candidate, Keri-Lynn Wilson, dropped out because of a shift in career emphasis, toward opera; Smith replaced her. He and Wilkins are among the new generation of impressive African-American conductors. The search committee planned to make its decision April 16. Public announcement will be delayed until contract negotiations are complete.