Sitkovetsky and the Greensboro SO Rejuvenate Well-Known Works by Tchaikovsky; & the Degas Quartet Essays the Composer's First Quartet
by William Thomas Walker
October 30 & 31, 2009, Greensboro, NC: It may have been Halloween, but inside Dana Auditorium no tricks came from the stage. This hall, with the best acoustics of any facility in the city, has long been the home of the Eastern Music Festival. Tight fiscal constraints have led the Greensboro Symphony to think outside of the box. While they are still using the cavernous War Memorial Auditorium for their more heavily attended Thursday Masterworks concerts, other venues are being explored for the Saturday repeats and for concerts using smaller forces. War Memorial Auditorium is notorious among musicians for dead spots leading to players or conductors not being able to hear all parts of the orchestra onstage. Sheldon Morgenstern, in No Vivaldi in the Garage, compared Dana Auditorium's acoustics to those of the world-renown Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Holland. I can confirm that hearing a big Bruckner symphony from Dana's balcony during an EMF season was a heady experience!
This concert vouchsafed why the "bread-and-butter" repertory is so central to the concert-going experience. Music lovers and critics who attend lots of concerts can get jaded from hearing frequently-programmed works realized indifferently, either technically or interpretively. Few works are more at the heart of classical concert programming than the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, and the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93). This concert program had been carefully prepared, and the works had clearly been given a fresh examination. To steal a phrase from a review by CVNC colleague Peter Perret, Sitkovetsky and the GSO played the "bejesus" out of the concerto and symphony.
For this concert, Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky wore two hats — star soloist and conductor. Before the concert, he spoke informally about the unpromising beginnings of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and his own experience with the concerto and as a conductor of the symphonies.
Tchaikovsky intended his Violin Concerto to have been premiered by the top Russian virtuoso of the time, Leopold Auer, but Auer declared the score "unplayable," deeply wounding the hyper-sensitive composer. Another violinist, Adolf Brodsky, gave the premiere in Vienna, where the influential critic Eduard Hanslick labeled it "music that stinks in the ear!" Sitkovetsky said Tchaikovsky probably heard the concerto played only twice in his lifetime. After his death, Auer felt guilty and took up the work, but his performing edition added what Sitkovetsky called unnecessary technical difficulties to some passages and, worse, made heavy cuts in the finale. Sitkovetsky said fragmentations and repetitions were fundamental components of the composer's style, and Auer's deletions did serious harm. Auer, through generations of his students (from Jascha Heifetz to Nathan Milstein), helped assure the concerto's place in the repertoire but perpetuated the cuts. Sitkovetsky, from his days at the Moscow Conservatory in the early 1970's, has preferred and played the composer's full original score, shorn of Auer's additions and cuts.
Sitkovetsky's love of the give-and-take of chamber music is well known, and he brings this same approach to his playing as a soloist in concertos. He was alert and responsive to every pairing of his solo line with orchestra players. One of my favorite spots is a slow violin melody coupled with a repeated bassoon drawl supported by hushed strings. Sitkovetsky gave full rein to all the gorgeous melodies, and his intonation was immaculate. His stratospheric high notes and harmonics were stunning. His phrasing, his subtle use of dynamics, and his wide spectrum of tonal color were all outstanding. I have heard this concerto many times in more than 30 years of concert-going and a number of these performances were good, but this performance was one of the select few that made me feel I was hearing it anew. Since Sitkovetsky had all he could handle with the concerto, the podium leadership was under the very able baton of the GSO's new Principal Guest Conductor Fouad Fakhouri. His work was very much in the spirit of chamber music.
Sitkovetsky rewarded the prolonged standing ovation with the Largo from Sonata No. 3 in C, S.1003, by J. S. Bach. Sitkovetsky used his "Ex-Reiffenberg" Stadivarius violin for the concerto. Made in 1717, it is an exceptional instrument dating from Stradivarius' finest period, 1698-1725. Before the concert, Sitkovetsky said he used a different one of his 19th-century French bows because of its facility of producing different sound qualities and its ability to bounce.
Fakhouri opened the concert with a rhythmically vital and carefully phrased account of the famous Waltz from Tchaikovsky great opera Eugene Onegin, Op. 24. This opera ought to be as central to the repertoire as Puccini's La Bohème or Verdi's La Traviata. The orchestra's strings sounded full, warm, and gorgeous in the superb acoustics of Dana Auditorium.
Before the concert, Sitkovetsky said he had played Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, to which he is strongly attracted, very often during his first ten years as a conductor but has not programmed it for about the last decade. He said his experience in the interim in leading the composer's other symphonies as well as those of others had opened up new insights and possibilities. This was manifest over the course of the white-hot interpretation he and his musicians gave. Section ensemble was tight as all stands played together as one. Attacks were razor sharp. All the string sections sounded superb. The cellos were glowing and rich in the third movement and the violas were burnished in the last two movements. The brass sections were brilliant and outstanding in the opening and final movements. The third movement scherzo was breath-taking with the variety and speed of the many plucked string episodes.
The all-Tchaikovsky program was played on October 29 in War Memorial Auditorium, and the focus on this composer had carried over in the October 30 Sitkovetsky and Friends Chamber Music Concert, given in the Recital Hall of School of Music at UNCG. The composer's best string quartet, No. 1 in D, Op. 11 (nicknamed"Accordion" because of the swelling sound of its opening movement), was given an alert performance by the Degas String Quartet. The members of this rising star among quartets are first violinist Emily Popham and second violinist Timothy Peters, violist Simon Ertz, and cellist Philip von Maltzahn. The last two players are members of the GSO. Mozart's ethereal Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581, was given a deeply satisfying interpretation by principal clarinetist Kelly Burke and a string ensemble led by Sitkovetsky and Stephanie Ezerman, violins, assistant principal violist Maureen Michaels (all members of the GSO), plus cellist Alexander Ezerman, a UNCG faculty member.