The stage of the newly rechristened University of North Carolina Greensboro Auditorium was packed with extra musicians for a substantial and richly satisfying program sandwiching a Russian concerto with French masterpieces. Greensboro Symphony Orchestra music director Dmitri Sitkovetsky coupled the ever popular Second Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) with three of the major works of French Impressionism by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). This final program of the season will be repeated on Saturday.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales opened the concert. The original piano version was premiered anonymously in 1911. It was an homage to Franz Schubert’s collection of waltzes published 1823. The seven waltzes, followed by an epilogue, are dominated by 3/4 time and combined lilting rhythms with sharp dissonances. The complex seventh waltz features intricate cross-rhythms, a binary super-imposed over the basic waltz pulse. He orchestrated it in 1912. Sitkovetsky brought out all the harsh brashness of the first waltz which skirts, or is suggestive of, free atonality. The quiet, hushed, simple beauty of the second waltz was perfectly spun out. The well-sprung syncopation of the third featured a fine oboe solo while gorgeous woodwind interplay dominated the fourth. The short fifth waltz featured a glowing duet between oboe and English horn. Sitkovetsky sustained clarity throughout the tricky sixth waltz and he brought out the Viennese Strauss qualities of the seventh.

A rousing performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op.18, came next. The work was critical to the composer’s career, marking his recovery from a creative block and depression following the failure of his First Symphony. It is dedicated to his doctor, Nikolai Dahl, whose prolonged use of hypnosis cured the composer. The swift and widespread success of the concerto’s 1900 premiere marked a major turning point in the composer’s personal life as well as in his creative style. Inna Faliks‘ performance was anything but routine. She had more than enough upper body strength to hold her own against the composer’s full, plush orchestration. The highlight of her performance was the wonderful intimate chamber music quality her performance of the nocturne-like second movement with its dialogue between keyboard and woodwinds. There was no want of bravura in the finale. Sitkovetsky provided a consummate accompaniment, giving full rein to the rich tapestry of melodies while carefully balancing with his soloist. Every section of the orchestra gave their all.

The hearty standing ovation was rewarded by Faliks’ jaw-dropping performance of the Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42 by Rachmaninoff. Has anyone since Domenico Scarlatti packed a piece with so many passages featuring crossed hands or independent fingerings? I could not help but think of all the implications of the word “prestidigitation” as I watched her “handiwork” in disbelief.

Intermission was followed by as fine a live performance of Debussy’s La Mer that I can recall hearing. Sitkovetsky’s interpretation was stylistically masterful and all sections of the orchestra played the socks off their parts. The subtle control of a remarkably broad palette of color was marvelous. The five French horns and four trumpets were beautifully gauged. The rich sound of the low strings, especially the violas and cellos, was pleasing as was the focused intonation of the violins’ high notes.

The concert ended with an equally strong performance of Suite No. 2 for orchestra from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The wonderful flute solo was floated magically by Debra Reuter-Pretta. A bird song was beautifully conjured by the flute section that included that rare bird, the alto flute. The expanded percussion section brought out plenty of character with its hints of the Far East. The important violin solo was gorgeously played by guest concertmaster Hal Grossman.

The concert proper was preceded by a heartening sampling of the Greensboro Symphony Guild‘s educational outreach. The strings from North Guilford High School were joined onstage by GSO players under the baton of Sandra Rathbone. They played “March Slav” by Tchaikovsky, “Pavane” by Fauré, and the “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saёns’ opera Samson et Dalila. Performances were promising and there was a good turnout of proud parents and relatives.

Rush to get a ticket for this outstanding program and performance! See the sidebar for details on Saturday’s repeat concert.