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The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra started the new year with a concert that came together because of several connections. Ukrainian guest conductor Natalia Ponomarchuk, whom GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky met in Ukraine in 2016, fled her native country with her dog and mother, and eventually settled in London.
Sitkovetsky reached out to her to conduct part of Saturday night's concert, as he told the audience, so we could make a "direct connection" with Ukraine. Sitkovetsky, himself, has a direct connection with Ukraine; his father was born in Kiev. Ponomarchuk's appearance certainly was a recent addition, as no mention of her was in the playbill. Furthermore, the Sibelius, which was to be the second piece on the program, was performed first: a brilliant move.
Ponomarchuk, who was warmly greeted by the audience, began by passionately conducting the stirring Ukrainian national anthem. The audience solemnly stood. What followed was Symphony No. 5 by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), Finland's most celebrated composer. He is probably most famous for his tone poem, Finlandia. He is credited with helping the country create a national identity, and he frequently incorporated Finnish folk tunes in his works.
The symphony was written in 1915 and revised a couple of times, with the 1919 three-movement version being the most frequently performed. During the years 1917-18 Finland broke away from Russian control, asserting its own independence. Another connection?
The first movement, the longest of the three, begins with a horn call, which was heard frequently, as were a number of motives from the winds, brass, and strings. The progression of musical events is somewhat difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the score, but Ponomarchuk's energetic, flamboyant conducting style was always fun to observe; sometimes it seemed as though she was asking more from the orchestra when it was already playing at its max.
The slower second movement presents a theme, beginning with pizzicato strings which gradually spreads throughout the orchestra. In this movement, the conductor's more serene conducting was in evidence, as she expertly wove the threads of melody together.
The finale has a distinctive motive iterated several times by the horns, supposedly inspired by swan calls. The final measures are distinctive and somewhat enigmatic: a series of six chords separated by silence—a minefield for the entire orchestra to play together; not all the attacks were perfect, but the effect was dramatic. The audience was obviously taken with this Ukrainian's distinctive style, musicality, and vitality—evident from the energetic and extended applause.
Following intermission, Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61, one of the most beloved concertos in the literature, was performed. The soloist was the esteemed Canadian-born James Ehnes, a winner of many awards including two Grammys.
Rather surprisingly, the premiere of the magnificent, three-movement concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven (Germany, 1770-1827) was a flop in 1806, mostly because Beethoven got the finished score to the violinist only a couple of days before the performance. It was a 12-year-old Joseph Joachim whose debut performance resurrected this concerto, under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn; it's been a staple of the rep ever since.
The opening begins with five timpani strokes, a rhythm that permeates the score. Sitkovetsky (or Ehnes) chose to take the first movement at a rather leisurely pace, which took away from some of the drive and energy, but also allowed for a more in-depth look at the incredible lyricism, of which Ehnes took full advantage. In addition to the traditional cadenza in the first movement, several earlier passages were wonderfully, freely played. The violinist kept a close eye on the conductor (and vice versa), so ensemble was near perfect.
The slow middle movement is a gem, full of magnificent lyricism from both soloist and orchestra; it serves as the emotional heart of the entire concerto. The second movement flows directly into the finale, which begins with a hunting tune. Good spirits abound and in the final cadenza, Ehnes' virtuosity soared: fiendishly difficult passages alternated with double and triple stops as well as melodic lines that sometimes sounded like a two-part invention.
The audience was beside itself with enthusiasm, bringing both Sitkovetsky and Ehnes back to the stage several times. There was yet another connection brought to the attention of the audience! Before Ehnes treated the gathered crowd to an encore, he "confessed" that he had heard Sitkovetsky play the Beethoven concerto when he was a young violinist. Ever since that time, he has drawn inspiration from that performance.
His encore was the serenely beautiful Sarabande from Bach's Sonata No. 2 for violin, an exquisite ending to an emotionally and musically satisfying concert.