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A January 10 concert in Greensboro's War Memorial Auditorium found the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra in fine form throughout a fully satisfying program directed by Stuart Malina. Before the concert began, Caroline Lee, the endowment director, was honored by having the 50th endowed chair, that of the Associate Concertmaster, named in her honor. Her efforts have helped raise $2.5 million for the GSO's endowment. The evening's sponsor, General Dynamics, was honored for its community outreach. A large number of students from Hampton Elementary School were present for the concert. General Dynamics sponsors a reading program and the GSO sponsors an instrument loan program in that school. As I have noted before, Greensboro audiences seem to be much more diverse across all categories than those in the Triangle.
To provide a strong contrast to the two 19th c. romantic works on the program, Malina choose "Tangazo" by 20th c. Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. In addition to full strings and woodwinds, it also calls for piano, horns and percussion and consists of three versions of the Tango, one slow, the second lively and the third, lyrical. Deep throbbing sounds of the cellos and double basses, heavily bowed, opened the piece. In sequence, the second violins and violas were added, followed by the first violins with the added contrast of differing parts for the two violin sections. The entrance of the triangle, piano and güiro, (a Latin American scraper made of a hollow gourd, with notches) marked the beginning of the second tango, which had a faster tempo and featured the woodwinds and horns. This section exploited some of the most sustained exposed high tessiture of the horn that I have ever heard; this involved not just quick bites but also long extended solos. The third tango had the violins making a barking effect by rapidly throwing the bow on the strings as well as using them as percussion by thumping their bottoms. There were refined solos from the oboe and clarinet.
I approached the next work, Schumann's Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129, with more enthusiasm for the soloist Edward Arron than for the composition, which I have long felt was the least interesting concerto in the too-limited cello repertory. Among his many chamber music activities, Arron is the Artistic Coordinator of the Caramoor Virtuosi, which has been a centerpiece of the second week of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston since 2000. He plays a cello made about 206 years ago by Vencenzo Panormo, who was born in Monreale near Palermo and was an important instrument maker in both Paris and London from 1772. As Malina pointed out, Schumann presented one face of Romanticism, sounding sad even in the livelier portions of the Concerto.
Based on Arron's and Malina's revelatory performance, my disdain for the Schumann has clearly been due to indifferent performances both on record and in concert. At the concert's "Postlude," Malina said he used the original orchestration and strongly believes that in order to be true to Schumann, the conductor must work with the original and take extra care in rehearsal. Arron added that he had heard recordings by famous cellists that cut the important cadenza in the third movement. He was attracted to the Concerto because of its the great virtuosity it demands is almost masked by the great introspection it conveys. He brought off both aspects of the work to an extraordinary degree. Malina's fastidious attention to balancing the orchestra gave it a chamber-music quality of give and take. Arron's tone was gorgeous and his intonation was impeccable. There was a memorable duet between the soloist and Principal Cellist Beth Vanderborgh.
The Second Symphony by Brahms presented the other face of Romanticism, as Malina said, "sounding happy in even the sadder parts." The entire orchestra was in its best form for this often-played work. There wasn't a single burble in the horn section, which was resplendent and burnished. If Principal Horn Robert Campbell played in both the high-lying Piazzolla as well as the Brahms, he should get a distinguished service medal! Malina's interpretation was well within the conventional but managed to sound fresh with convincing tempos. The first movement was distinguished by rich string tone, subtle timpani and careful articulation. The slow movement had mellifluous cellos with prominent parts for the horns and woodwinds. The bracing third movement had lovely solos from Principal Oboe Cara Fish and Principal Clarinet Kelly Burke set against deep pizzicatos from the cellos. Vanderborgh had a brief glowing cello solo. The last movement was vigorous aplenty, full of joy. The trombones and trumpets came into their own in the blazing finale.