Two very different works began the new year’s Masterworks series of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven’s promethean Violin Concerto and Sibelius’ somewhat austere Fifth Symphony. The soloist for the Beethoven was violin virtuoso and GSO Artistic Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky; the conductor for the Beethoven was GSO Resident Conductor Nate Beversluis. Sitkovetsky traded in his violin for a baton to lead the orchestra in the Sibelius.

When performing such a legendary and popular work as the Beethoven, the musicians must make some important decisions about how to present the composition. Should the soloist and orchestra present a standard, tried and true execution, or should they strive for a new, more creative approach? I would say that Sitkovetsky and Co. straddled the line – some things were pretty traditional; however a decidedly romantic version, with lots of rubato, was certainly something different.

The opening movement begins ominously with a four-note motive played by the solo timpani, which immediately calls the winds into action. After a bit of intonation and ensemble problem at the outset, the section came together. Beversluis (or Sitkovetsky?) chose a pretty relaxed tempo, well suited for the violinist’s intentional shaping of the phrases. Sitkovektsy’s playing was exquisite – melodic lines were never repeated verbatim. Subtle nuance shaped the rephrasing, exploring some inner beauty sometimes missed in a mundane reading of the score.

Furthermore, Sitkovetsky graced the score with some interpolated notes, which piqued interest. Some things didn’t work so well, at least not to this listener. The big ritardando before the recapitulation seemed a bit over the top. The music loses some of the fire inherent in the score when nuance is chosen over drive.

Conductor Beversluis was caught between a rock and hard place, trying to direct the orchestra, while at the same time deferring to Sitkovetsky’s spontaneous playing; sometimes the result created some problems with ensemble between the soloist and orchestra. Nonetheless, Beversluis did a fine job of inciting the orchestra to action when called for.

The second movement Larghetto begins with a hushed theme presented by the muted strings. Before long Sitkovetsky added his personal touch to the movement with languid lines that soared into the stratosphere, providing filigree to the orchestral line. The performance was all about the serenity of the score.

The third movement proceeds directly from the second without pause. This Rondo is generally recognized as one of the best of Beethoven’s rondo finales, and this one never fails to please with its folk-like quality. The composer saved some of the flashiest violin licks in this “country-dance like movement,” which Sitkovetsky negotiated without breaking a sweat.

The Sibelius symphony was commissioned by the Finnish government to celebrated the composer’s 50th birthday, and the premiere took place on Sibelius’ birthday, with the composer conducting. The three-movement symphony is a watershed for the composer, as he left his post-romantic style for a more contemporary musical expression.

The opening movement begins rather serenely, with the winds presenting several swirling motifs. Indeed much of the movement is organized by contrasting textures – from the noodling winds at the outset to the heralding brass fanfare (five horns, three trombones, three trumpets – a very sturdy sound).

The second movement, a set of variations based on the opening flute tune with pizzicato strings and sustained horn chords, creates a pleasant intermezzo between the outer movements.

The finale begins with a tune rapidly and impeccably played by tremolo strings, with an additional majestic horn motif (legend has it that these were inspired by swan-calls). Dancing winds join the fray until a gigantic climax is attained. The music ends enigmatically, with six chords separated by silence. The GSO played with skill and verve throughout the scant 30-minute work.

The entire evening of music was dedicated to Steve Harper, who has retired from the symphony, in which he started playing in 1973. He accepted a plaque during intermission, and the entire orchestra gave him a standing ovation for his long contribution to the music scene in the Triad.

This program will be repeated on January 25. For details, see the sidebar.

Afterward – I’m not sure why the concert was titled “Diamonds in the Rough.”