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A couple of years ago, this concert probably would have been subtitled "An evening of Russian masters," but times have definitely changed. Indeed, the three pieces on Saturday night's concert by the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra focused on connections to Ukraine. Leading the orchestra was, of course, music director Dmitry Sitkovetsky, who was born in Azerbaijan, then part of the USSR, as was Ukraine. I suspect the connection is not coincidental.
The opening Hymne—2001 is by Valentin Silvestrov (Ukraine, b. 1937), who recently fled his homeland for Germany when Russia invaded Ukraine. This short work, written for string orchestra, provided a somber yet ethereal introduction to the night's music making.
As the fine program notes by Samantha Horn point out, the work's mood has much in common with Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings (originally a movement of a string quartet, arranged by the composer for string orchestra). Silvestrov's work has been called a "noble song of praise," and the composer stated that it is "enveloped by silence. . . the silence of new music . . . a slowed down, frozen state or a stopping of time."
The slowly evolving, gentle string sounds are reminiscent of Barber's beloved piece, but written more than 85 years later, with more unexpected tender dissonances and resolutions. Leading this lovely performance were concertmaster Marjorie Bagley with lots of solo work (often playing in a heavenly stratosphere, way above the rest of the ensemble) and principal second violin, Stephanie Ezerman. Maestro Sitkovetsky's tender conducting entranced the audience, which gave appropriate silence before generously applauding the performance of this gorgeous work.
Up next was the Symphony-Concerto in E minor, Op. 125 (1952) by Sergei Prokofiev (Russia, 1891-1953), who was born in present-day Ukraine. The three-movement work is a reworking of the composer's Cello Concerto, Op. 58 (1933-38). All three movements are sprawling, and each presents many contrasting characters and moods. It has been written that this work is "one of most difficult works in the entire cello concerto repertory." The brilliant and energetic soloist, the 2007 Tchaikovsky Gold Medal winner, Sergey Antonov (Russia, b. 1983) was obviously up to the daunting task.
The opening movement, which is mostly melancholic in mood, presents an opening motive, gently presented by the soloist over pizzicato strings. Other themes are subsequently heard, most in the dark vein presented at the outset. Antonov's playing immediately displayed his command of the instrument, both in the virtuosity required as well as the extreme sensitivity displayed.
The second section, perhaps the longest movement ever written by Prokofiev, clocks in just under 20 minutes. As this is a later work for the composer, I hear less of the dissonance that characterized his earlier works, but the sardonic nature and the full-blown romanticism are very much present. The first section is a scherzo, with lots of action for the soloist. The mood turns more sarcastic which eventually blossoms into beautiful lyricism. A fiendishly difficult cadenza follows, which the soloist played with passion and what seemed to be "ease."
The finale begins with a sober theme presented by the cello, but the music eventually becomes heroic. The tempo increases and the mood becomes agitated, with lots of humor, and it ends in a gigantic climax. The audience roared its approval of the work and especially of the soloist's brilliant performance.
The final work on the program was Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 (1872) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Russia, 1840-93). The work was formerly subtitled "Little Russian" but now is known as "Ukrainian;" it includes three Ukrainian folk songs that the composer heard while starting the composition in his sister's home, located in Ukraine. This four-movement work is cast in a more-or-less traditional structure, with the first movement beginning with a slow introduction, a slow second movement, the third a scherzo, and a fast, spirited finale. This is a relatively early work and one can hear both the superb orchestration for which the composer is justly famous as well as some animated passages that don't always gel musically.
The symphony opens with a solo, sensitively and gorgeously played by principal horn Robert Campbell and lovingly echoed by principal bassoonist Carol L. Bernstorf; this is one of the Ukrainian folk tunes. The tempo picks up and becomes feistier. At the conclusion, the solo horn and bassoon return the opening.
The second movement is march-like in nature, while the third is a short, lively scherzo, interrupted by a folk-like trio (no real folksong here). The finale begins with a lengthy, brilliant fanfare followed by theme and variations based on the third folksong. The conclusion was absolutely thrilling, bringing the concert to a triumphant conclusion.