Rising French violinist Rénaud Capuçon was scheduled to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra on November 14 but was asked by conductor Bernard Haitink to replace violinist Gil Shaham in a performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, and he accepted. This was ironic in that Shaham first came to wide musical notice when, while still a Juilliard student, he filled in for Itzhak Perlman, in a London concert. The lack of a soloist with barely a week's notice gave GSO Music Director candidate Thomas Wilkins more of a trial of his organizational skills than he had expected. As related at the post-concert "Meet the Artists" session, one violinist he had recently worked with didn't share his view of the Sibelius, and another hadn't played it recently enough to be safe. Instead, remembering a recent Juilliard graduate that he had worked with, he called the manager and was able to get pianist Terrence Wilson.
Full credit should go to his choice, who earned a rousing standing ovation for his virtuosic performance of Sergei Rachmaninov's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." Wilson, no mere run-of-the-mill hot-shot who mechanically whizzes through his memorized score, has technique to burn but clearly had made the piece his own. There were a number of interesting phrasing choices, and he paid close attention at key points to conductor Wilkins who created an ideal accompaniment from the alert GSO musicians. All sections were carefully balanced. Each variation was a delight, with its own character and color. In response to the enthusiastic audience, Wilson played Debussy's "Minstrels," No. 12 from Book I of the Préludes .
Because of the sudden change in concerto plans, no local Steinway concert grand piano was available. Instead, a Falcone grand was used to generally fine effect. Wilson, at the "Meet the Artists," said that, out of ignorance, it wouldn't have been his first choice, but that it had worked out quite well. If the Falcone had been a singer, I would have called its treble and midrange well supported. However its bass end was not so rich in sound; a friend described it as having a bit of a "boing." It would be a delight to hear him play a recital on the 1923D Steinway in Whitley Auditorium on the Elon University Campus.
In a pleasant change from the over exposed "Pines of Rome," conductor Wilkins opened the concert with a sensitive reading of Ottorino Respighi's "Fountains of Rome." This allowed him to show off the GSO's ability to play quietly and he paid great attention to nuances of string articulation. Only in the exuberant "Triton Fountain" was there a section where the brass totally covered the strings.
Wilkins closed the concert with an ebullient interpretation of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 3, in E flat, Op. 97 ("Rhenish"). At the "Meet the Artists" session, he explained that he chose Schumann's original score and spent extra rehearsal time carefully adjusting balances and phrasing to bring out such easily obscured details as the canon in the first movement. There were no brass-versus-strings problems in this performance. Unlike the murky orchestration too many conductors allow, many of the inner details were clear, thanks to his hard work. All the sections of the orchestra played well. The horns were great in the last two movements after being a little more human than divine in the first. The fourth movement evoked the sound of an organ with the close coordination of the brass and woodwinds. Wilkins' long experience as both associate and guest conductor with many orchestras was evident when he merely intently watched sections for whole bars, confident that they didn't need over-conducting in every measure.
Both soloist and guest conductor were hits at the very well attended "Meet the Artist" session, one of the delights of any GSO concert and a specialty of current Music Director Malina. The session went longer than usual and was unusually wide ranging. More audience members ought to add to their enjoyment and education by attending these refreshing causal sessions. Conductor Wilkins is at least as good as Malina in dealing with the public in this manner. He said that he had grown up in the projects and had been a member of the last class to graduate from Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Virginia, his hometown. Schools had good music programs at that time, and at an early age he switched from violin to cello. He also studied the tuba. Pianist Wilson first discovered classical music as he dialed the radio in his Bronx, New York, residence. After study in the neighborhood school, he progressed to the Manhattan School of Music and later became a scholarship student at the Juilliard School, where his principal teacher was Yoheved Kaplinksy.
Incidentally, the sponsor for this concert has funded instruments for 50 students at Hampton Elementary School who were enthusiastically present, applauding twice during the Rachmaninov as if this had been a jazz concert. The students played in the lobby before the GSO's performance.