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This unbiased Francophile was in "hog heaven," basking in the glow of an entire evening of superb scores from the heart of the French repertory at the November 20 concert of the Greensboro Symphony, given in War Memorial Auditorium. When he was a candidate for music director, Dmitry Sitkovetsky said the orchestra was ready to be taken to the next level. As in the first concert of the season, the string sections were divided, with the first violins on the conductor's left, followed by the cellos, and with the double basses behind them. Adjoining the second violins on the conductor's right were the violas, with the extensive percussion section behind them. The sections had clearly gotten used to this "new" old set-up. Also new were much greater section unanimity and refinement, and the world-class violinist/conductor has brought a wide palette of dynamic nuances. The "ppp" portions possessed a welcome fullness or "weight" heretofore lacking. There's nothing "anemic" about their quiet playing.
Most of this new polish was evident in the colorful and lively "Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Paul Dukas that opened the program. The interpretation was standard but sounded freshly minted because of the alert and sensitive playing. The truly quiet opening drew the listener's attention. String harmonics and pizzicatos were wonderfully varied. Among the brasses, the subtle "pp" horn and muted trumpet were memorable. This work must be a top favorite among bassoonists and contrabassoonists because of the extensive and delightfully comic writing for them. The GSO's three, led by Carol Bernstorf, were colorful, while Michael Burns was truly basso profundo on the low instrument.
We can recall seldom ever hearing and seeing so joyous a performance of the Saint-Saëns' Third Violin Concerto as the one that burst forth from soloist Olivier Charlier. How rare to find a world class violin soloist conducting for another and how wonderful that they both shared a common "chamber music" approach! This was no mere note perfect generic run through that too many big name soloists foist on a naïve public. Besides radiating a sense of fun and joy, Charlier listened closely and responded to his orchestral colleagues. At the post-concert "Meet the Artists" session,
Sitkovitsky said the violinist is one of the rare ones who know all the notes of the full score. He had a rich full tone, from a throaty lower range to bell-like precise high notes, and all the agility a composer could want. The woodwinds were superb throughout but especially in the slow movement, with clarinets, flute, oboe, and a memorably long-held "p" horn note. The hushed entry of the soloist, accompanied by harp, oboe, clarinet, and strings at the beginning of the last movement, was comparably fine.
The concert's perfection was sealed with a fully satisfying and stylish performance of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique . In addition to the antiphonal strings already described, Sitkovitsky had the two harps widely separated, behind the violin sections. The ample percussion included a bass drum and two sets of three timpani with four players. Instead of the usual tubular bells, a marvelous effect was achieved by playing bell plates (1.5 square feet of aluminum sheets rented from Philadelphia) off backstage right which added greatly to the final "Witches' Sabbath" movement. Every section of the orchestra had opportunities to shine. With her B-flat clarinet, Kelly Burke gave the first voice of the " idée fixe " in the opening movement and its last sardonic airing, with her short E-flat clarinet, in the finale. Flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta was as brilliant as ever in her frequent solos. Robert Campbell led the horns, which had a glorious night whether subtly and softly blended, early on, or brazen, in the last movement. Much the same was true for the trumpets, led by Anita Cirba; there were some memorable "pp" muted passages. The bucolic third movement, "Scene in the Country," with its wonderfully realized duet between the on-stage English horn, played by Ashley Barret, and the off-stage oboe of Cara Fish, will long linger in our memory.
The arrangement of the musicians combined with their new refinement of sound made for a glorious recreation of the composer's truly revolutionary work. Beethoven died in 1827, the conductor pointed out after the concert, and here, in 1830, and without precedent, Berlioz came up with all these new ideas and techniques such as the use of a " idée fixe " and a huge orchestra. Sitkovitsky said that Berlioz "stood alone" with no one really following him; pursuing the same idea, Spoleto USA Music Director Emmanuel Villaume commented a while back that, in contrast to Wagner and Richard Strauss and their followers, "Berlioz represented the path music didn't take." It was a treat to experience this full flowering of the French master's genius.