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"Please silence all cell phones and electronic devices. Enjoy the show as the Schiffmann Ring of Light counts us down to the start of the performance!" The audience craned their necks to the ceiling of the beautiful Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts as a circle of rectangular lights began dimming in succession. As the house darkened, the lights on stage took over – it was time for the first classical performance inside the newly opened downtown concert venue: The Greensboro Symphony playing Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, joined by renowned pianist, Olga Kern.
The Greensboro Symphony welcomed the audience's applause with the entrance of the concertmistress Marjorie Bagley, and, after tuning, were off with a lively flourish from Maestro Dmitry Sitkovetsky. Opening the concert with Mikhail Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, the ensemble had an energy that was electric. The strings navigated whirling sixteenth-notes with ease while the winds and brass rang sonorously, serving as a triumphant start to the 2021-2022 concert season. The orchestra maintained a nice sense of connection across sections which conveyed a nuanced understanding of the work. This brief piece served as a wonderful precursor to the next piece on the program by fellow Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
When the overture ended and the applause died down, the piano was brought out, quickly followed by the evening's guest soloist Kern, ready to perform Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. Contrasting her warm smile and gracious demeanor, Kern's entrance after the opening fanfare was nothing short of magisterial. The sound she was able to pull from the instrument was robust and soared over the lush orchestral melody, drawing the audience immediately to her every note. The ensemble demonstrated awareness in their accompaniment, playing tutti sections with enthusiasm while listening with care to delicate solo moments, which Kern displayed tenderly. When the first movement ended, the audience could not contain their approval and erupted in applause. After the room quieted, the subsequent movement opened with a gorgeous flute melody that laid on top of a soft blanket of sound provided by the string section. The entrance of the solo piano was delicate and intentional, beautifully contrasting the bombastic first movement, and each orchestral melody only added to Kern's sensitive playing (such as the serene duet between the soloist and principal cello). The character contrasts in this movement were effective and set up the change in demeanor that was to come in the final movement. If the second movement of this concerto is a tender love letter, the third is a lively celebration full of syncopations, virtuosic and lyrical piano melodies, and playful interjections from the orchestra. While the tempos were energetic, if not sometimes frantic, the ensemble followed Kern steadfastly and reached the end of the movement in a terrific blaze as the audience leapt to their feet. As if the last half hour of virtuosity hadn't been enough, Kern satiated the audience's applause with an excerpt from Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 4 in C minor as an encore that garnered another standing ovation and a "that was WONDERFUL!" from the gentleman on my right, to which I heartily agreed.
After the intermission, the orchestra retook the stage for Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92. The first movement began a bit more briskly than other performances I've encountered, but was played convincingly and segued cleanly into the joyous main theme. (I first heard this melody in a Charlie Brown special as a kid and as the orchestra played, I couldn't help but picture Snoopy hopping around as the "Easter Beagle".) The orchestra had good exchanges between sections, passing the dotted rhythmic pattern around with clarity, dynamic nuance, and successful changes in character, all without losing musical momentum. The second movement, a pensive and stately double variation, demonstrated the ensemble's effective layering of melody and dynamics. The two main themes of the piece maintained continuity as they were developed across the orchestra, starting with the violas and cellos, who displayed nuanced and sensitive dynamics, and culminating in convincing dialogue between the entire string section and the winds and brass. The third movement began with the same energy as the beginning of the concert, which I commend, given the amount of notes played since then. The movement's trio section had a wonderfully contrasting character and the transition into the fourth movement was seamless and exuberant. In the finale, the strings and winds maintained a nice back and forth dialogue as they navigated their whirling melodies and the movement maintained energy until the triumphant ending, which the audience congratulated with a standing ovation. As far as season openers go, this was certainly a successful performance and I eagerly await my next opportunity to enjoy the Greensboro Symphony.