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The first performance of this season's Greensboro Symphony Chamber Series brought together a collaboration of musicians from schools in North Carolina — Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill — all playing in the Recital Hall of the UNCG School of Music. As is the tradition of this series, now in its fifth year, GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky welcomed and warmed up the audience with stories about the musicians and the works they were about to play.
Sitkovetsky opened the evening by thanking the crowd for "choosing music" over the Presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama.
Sitkovetsky (on violin) and Duke faculty member Jane Hawkins (on piano) gave a dazzling performance of Prokofiev's Second Violin Sonata in D, Op, 94a. This is a neo-classical, light-hearted work in four movements. It was initially written as a flute sonata, but reworked as a piece for violin at the behest of the Russian violinist David Oistrakh. The opening Moderato contains many contrasting ideas that were clearly etched by both musicians. A fiendish Scherzo follows that fairly flies. Nimble fingers for both the violin and piano are a prerequisite —no problem for these two artists. The third, slow movement begins and ends with a simple tune (tenderly played by Sitkovetsky) that surrounds a more liquid center. The Finale is based around a folk-like melody that returns several times. Contrasting with this spiky tune is a section in which the piano is given a melodic line played by both hands; the violin swoops up and down. Great fun.
Dmitri Shostakovich's Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok, Op. 127, featured not only Sitkovetsky and Hawkins, but also soprano Terry Rhodes (UNC Chapel Hill) and cellist Fred Raimi (from Duke's Ciompi Quartet). Although the Romance title might imply sentimentality, nothing could be further from the truth; this set is dark and evocative. As Sitkovetsky explained, each of the seven poems is set to a different arrangement of instruments, each stirring up a distinct mood. In comparing the Prokofiev sonata with the Shostakovich Romances, Sitkovetsky suggested a Russian Mozart for the former and a Russian Beethoven for the latter.
"Ophelia's Song" is scored for cello and voice, and the two lines wove across each other's path in what was essentially a lyric ode to death. Exquisite. "Gamauyn, the Prophetic Bird" is a horrific scene with sparse piano accompanying the voice. Rhodes was certainly dramatic throughout the set, but no more so than in this setting, which ends with dark, evil-boding piano sounds. A bit of light appears in "We Were Together," which fittingly joins the voice and violin since the poem contains references to that instrument. The piano and cello join the singer in "The City Sleeps,"which conjures up the dying hours of the night. A ferocious violin breaks the calm as "The Tempest"interrupts the previous song. It is soon joined by voice and piano in this setting of a section of King Lear. "Secret Sounds"brings together the cello and violin with voice, although the texture is often only the singer with one of the instruments. All of the instruments join together for the final "Music." This is extreme music, with the violin and cello frequently called upon to play harmonics together. Perhaps understandably, intonation was not always perfect. One wonders how the musicians even stayed together, given the fluid nature of the music.
Rhodes voice was always present and never covered, although some of the pitches were suspect; maybe the difficulty of singing in Russian adds to the problem. And there were moments that the string players were out of tune. All in all, this is a hard score to sell and is seldom heard, given its instrumentation and gloomy subject matter. Therefore the opportunity to hear such a vital reading amply compensated for whatever errors took place.