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Two wildly contrasting works filled the bill for Friday night's Greensboro Symphony Chamber Series perfomance: Béla Bartók's Contrasts for clarinet, violin, and piano, and the early and seldom performed Piano Quintet in A, Op. 5, by Antonín Dvořák. As usual, GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky welcomed the audience and introduced both pieces as well as the players de jour. There were both familiar and new musicians. The first violin, of course, was handled by Sitkovetsky. At the keyboard was UNCG faculty member Inara Zandmane; the clarinetist was first chair of the GSO, Kelly Burke. Second violin was played by Janet Orenstein, the violist was Diane Phoenix-Neal (also in the GSO), and the cellist was Alexander Ezerrman, who is in his first year teaching at UNCG.
Contrasts was commissioned in 1938 by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman as a light 6-minute work of two movements, each of which would fit on one side of a recording. Bartók, however, ran a bit long and later added a middle movement so that the entire work ended up being 15 minutes plus. Interestingly, the work was premiered (and first recorded) by Bartók (piano), Goodman (clarinet), and the Hungarian Joseph Szigeti (violin). The three movements are entitled "Verbunkos" (a military recruiting dance), "Pihenö" (a movement of relaxation, Sitkovetsky explained), and "Sebes" (a fiery conclusion) that makes use of an oddly-tuned violin, designed to conjure up peasant sensibilities.
One wonders if the work was exactly what Goodman had in mind, as it is much more east-European sounding than jazz inspired. The opening movement is march-like and employs pizzicato from the violin and includes a cadenza for that instrument. The second movement is much more lyric and free flowing, while the third is a frenzied dance, with a significant nod toward foot-stomping and a cadenza for clarinet.
All three musicians, Sitkovetsky, Burke, and Zandmane, carved out distinct personalities through the course of the work. Spiky rhythms abounded, give and take between violin and clarinet was the order of the day, and an amazingly wide range of dynamics was employed by all three. Kudos.
Sitkovetsky explained that Dvořák burned the first version of a Piano Quintet, but the composer tried his hand at it again, and the result was this Op. 5 work, which was not published during the composer's lifetime. Sitkovetsky claimed that Friday's performance was mostly likely the North Carolina premiere. Much more familiar is the later Op. 81 Piano Quintet in the same key of A.
The work is in three movements and reveals a composer not completely mature in his compositional style. One hears early romantic composers (Beethoven and Schubert come to mind) rather than the Bohemian stamp that will become the composer's trademark in later years. Still, there is much to be admired in the work, especially in a dynamic presentation by this group of five.
The opening "Allegro ma non troppo" immediately catches the audience's attention, and the melodic material is passed around pretty democratically, especially to the first violin, cello and piano, and Sitkovetsky, Ezerrman, and Zandamane aggressively took these moments to heart. The slow movement, "Andante sostenuto," allowed for the exploration of melodic beauty, while the "Finale" ("Allegro con brio") brought back the dynamic interplay between the instruments. Intonation was superb throughout, and each musician carefully followed one another's lead so that ensemble was tight.
It was a delightful evening, albeit a bit on the short side, and it provided the opportunity for lesser known and performed works an airing.