Greensboro Symphony Orchestra music director Dmitri Sitkovetsky chose an ideal pairing of masterworks for the finale of the 2016-17 season – his fourteenth at the helm. The orchestra filled the stage of Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College – acoustically one of the city's finest.
The opening appetizer was a solid performance of the original Dresden edition of the overture to the opera Tannhäuser (1845) by Richard Wagner (1813-83). Sitkovetsky paced the piece, carefully building and releasing tension over long phrases. The solemn "Pilgrim's Chorus" theme was beautifully spun by the five French horns before being taken up by the deep, rich sound of the cellos, to be followed by the full support of the orchestra. This theme of chaste, spiritual asceticism was quickly juxtaposed against a feverish, voluptuous Venusberg theme. A wide dynamic range made for a fine, dramatic impression. Brief, effective solos were had from concertmaster Marjorie Bagley and principal clarinetist Kelly Burke.
The roster of great concertos for the cello are slim. There is the glorious Dvořák at the top followed closely by introspective Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1919), the last major composition of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934). The bloodshed of hundreds on Flanders Fields in World War I wreaked social havoc and the loss of confidence in civilization itself. It is reflected in this concerto's deep melancholy. Elgar's orchestration is exquisitely balanced so as to never cover the soloist. Most of the four movements are slow. A typical Elgarian nobilmente flourish opens the concerto before quickly giving way to a long world-weary theme in the violas, then taken up by the soloist and finally the full orchestra. A livelier section, introduced by the clarinet, is followed by the cello's dark meditation. The second movement is joined by the cello playing a guitar-like pizzicato version of the introductory embellishment before using the bow and calling upon a plethora of virtuoso techniques while rushing in perpetual motion. The short Adagio is a "song without words" for the cello. The cello's recitative, combining the themes of the first movement, opens the finale. It opens with a typical Elgarian pre-WWI short episode of swagger before a return of the wistful mood. A brilliant cello cadenza leads a brief spirited finish.
Zuill Bailey, a frequent and welcomed guest throughout our state, was the dazzling soloist. What richness of tone and what a wide palette of color! The multiple types of pizzicatos came off breathtakingly. How perfectly did he evoke the unique Elgarian melancholy! Sitkovetsky balanced and phrased with his soloist ideally, not least in creating a special orchestral translucency in the opening movement. Every section of the orchestra was responsive to the challenges.
It is too bad the popularity of the "New World Symphony" of Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) has crowded off his finest, Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, from our concert halls. It was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society and was premiered in 1885 with the composer leading their orchestra. Dvořák had firmly decided to stick with his nationalist ideals at the time, resisting pressure to compose a German opera. This work is set in the standard four movements.
The brooding opening Allegro maestoso pairs a sometimes dark, sometimes triumphant theme against a second theme that is dance-like and gentle. Folk-like melodies and beats are in every movement. The Poco Adagio is rich in counterpoint and dissonances. The lovely Scherzo: Vivace is based upon the alternating dance rhythms the Czech dance – the furiant. The Finale: Allegro reflects the varying moods of the first three movements before resolving in triumph.
Sitkovetsky led an idiomatic and vital interpretation with every section of the orchestra responding enthusiastically and skillfully. The horn section, led by Robert Campbell, was in resplendent form. Low strings produced rich, full sounds. Sitkovetsky's antiphonal seating of the strings, with the first and second violin sections on opposite sides of the stage, helped bring independent lines into relief. Burke contributed significant clarinet solos. A delicate pairing of a pair of flutes, led by Debra Reuter-Pivetta, and the first stand of violas led by Scott Rawls, was a memorable episode between the dynamic, stormy portions.
A brief taste of one of the GSO's community outreach, its partnership annually with three local high schools, was given before the hall opened for the formal concert. A concert band from Southeastern Guilford played a medley of movie theme music before an audience of proud parents and early arrivers. Vouchers for the concert tickets were given to the student players and their families. GSO musicians spend an intensive two weeks with the students.
This program will be repeated on Saturday night. For details see the side bar.
On Friday night, Sitkovetsky, violin, was joined by Zuill Bailey, cello, Scott Rawls, viola, and other members of the GSO, for a chamber concert in the UNCG School of Music Recital Hall.