I had always thought that the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra’s real forte was its ability to bring brilliant and fiery romantic literature alive. However, this weekend’s performance of a lyric work by Wagner and standard classical repertoire by Mozart and Haydn gave me pause.  A pared down orchestra under the direction of GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky offered up a fine evening of clean and elegant playing.  Friday night’s near-capacity crowd in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus was delighted as well.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll was written as a birthday present to the composer’s wife in 1870. Some of the tunes eventually ended up in The Ring, but this work, written seven years before the opera cycle, is primarily an offering of love with few dark moments.  The 20-minute composition gently depicts the sunrise and some bird songs. The main melodic idea is initially presented by the strings with other instruments gradually joining in, which creates mild tension and movement.  Sitkovetsky tenderly led the ensemble, paying good attention to the dynamic changes and making the most out of the many expectant pauses that dot the score.  The orchestra attentively responded to the conductor’s leading, and the more rhythmic middle section put the winds on display. They sounded great.

The internationally renowned pianist (and mother of conductor Sitkovetsky) Bella Davidovich joined the GSO for a performance of Mozart’s Concerto in A.  This is a work from the composer’s mature period and is perfection itself in terms of the balance between dark and light, solo and orchestra, and drama and lyricism.  The first movement is primarily of sunny disposition with some passages of darkness.  The second movement, however, is one of those gorgeous gems, rare even in Mozart’s output that defies verbal description.  The movement contains a fractured melody uttered by the piano, which is answered by the orchestra.  Especially poignant is the sound of a plaintive solo clarinet. It is some of the most beautiful and moving music in the literature.  In contrast, the optimistic finale sparkles with life. 

Davidovich dove into the score with assertive authority.  Her playing sparkled and brimmed with vitality. The first movement’s cadenza (written by Mozart) was a showcase of arpeggios and scales, played brilliantly by the 81-year-old pianist, who sounded more like a 20-year-old. Her playing of the Adagio second movement was well crafted, full of dynamic nuances, and her extroverted playing was again at the fore of the third movement.

I suppose everyone has a preference as to how Mozart should sound. This listener was hoping for more elegance and refinement.  Davidovich’s phrases were clearly chiseled out, and her playing certainly spanned a wide dynamic range, but her aggressive playing seemed more suitable for a 19th-century romantic warhorse than for a work from a period known for its subtlety and grace. The audience certainly found her playing winning, though, as the crowd leapt to its feet and remained standing for several curtain-calls, hoping for an encore. But alas, none was offered.

The second half of the concert was given over to Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor, popularly known as the “Farewell.” This is a four-movement work written in 1772 and performed for Haydn’s employer, Prince Esterhazy and his guests in the Prince’s country estate.  And therein lies the reason for the subtitle. The Prince’s musicians were anxious to return to Vienna after a particularly long stay in the country. Haydn’s finale responded to their desire to head back to the city.

The first movement bubbles with an agitated arpeggio melody that was cleanly and passionately played by all involved.  There are a couple of tunes in a major key, which added some light and rest from the darker minor material.

The second movement is slower, although the violins use mutes, and some of the melodic material contains unusual rhythms creating a distinctive mood.

The third movement Minuet contains a Trio that is distinguished by two horns cast in a hunting call. The horns in this movement and throughout the work play incredibly difficult exposed lines, and Robert Campbell and Lynn Beck played with both security and authority.

The Presto finale begins ordinarily enough with lots of rhythmic energy, but towards what should have been the end, the music breaks off with an inconclusive cadence.  What happens then is a slow coda, most unusual in a classical symphony. 

In the course of this playing the musicians stood and turned off their stand lights, leaving the stage in twos and threes, until there were only a handful left playing.  Eventually concertmaster John Fadial stood, offering his fiddle to Sitkovetsky, who accepted it and began playing until the end with second violinist Stephen Harper, the only other player remaining on the stage. Very fun and effective stagecraft. Apparently Prince Esterhazy got the not-so-subtle hint from Haydn and the musicians, and they all packed up and left for Vienna the next day.

What a delight to hear the symphony and witness the shenanigans. Indeed, the entire concert revealed a personality of the GSO that we too seldom get to hear — more, please.