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The final chamber concert of the 2011-12 season of the Greensboro Symphony's Rice Toyota Sitkovetsky and Friends chamber series began with the wonderful announcement that the current underwriter, Garson Rice, was committing the funds to support the series for another two years, a notable financial commitment in these uncertain economic times. Mr. Rice’s heart (and wallet) is clearly supportive of this wonderful series that brings chamber music in an informal setting to Greensboro.
The evening began, as is typical of this series, with GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky welcoming the crowd with the above announcement and a bit of history about the first piece on the program, Bach’s Trio Sonata. The story goes something like this: in 1747 Bach went to visit his son (C.P.E. Bach) who was Court Harpsichordist in the service of King Frederick II (“the Great”). King Fred gave Bach a theme upon which he was to improvise a fugue, which Bach apparently did very successfully. The elder Bach then took this tune home with him and composed a much larger work based on the theme and subsequently returned it to Frederick as The Musical Offering. One of the sections of that work was the Trio Sonata, and apparently one of the last compositions for which Bach specified instrumentation. Also interesting to note, is that Frederick himself was a fine amateur flutist, hence this particular arrangement — flute, violin, cello, and harpsichord.
Friday night’s performance featured principal GSO flutist Debra Pivetta, Sitkovetsky on violin, cellist Alex Ezerman, and Andre Lash, at the keyboard. The work is in four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement. “But it is much more than that,” proclaimed Sitkovetsky. Indeed.
Suffice it to say this music is a rich contrapuntal web of three melodic lines that usually exhibit their independence from each other, although often one is willing to imitate another. Sometimes the violin and flute frolic in treble register with the cello holding down the bass andwith the harpsichord supplying the harmonic underpinning.
Frederick must have been quite an accomplished flutist, but certainly couldn’t have played with the beauty and confidence displayed by Pivetta, whose lovely tone matched Sitkovetsky’s Baroque sound (straight tone!). Ezerman's solid playing added an individual voice. Lash, whose left hand often doubled Ezerman’s cello melody, provided a clear, tinkling tone that imparted contrast with the other strings.
The second work on the program couldn’t have been more different: Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 for 2 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos. Brahms was all of 27 when he penned this work, and a string quartet has these instruments, of course, but noteworthy is the preponderance of the low strings (cellos and violas). The musicians making up the ensemble were Sitkovetsky and John Fadial (violins), Scott Rawls and Noah Hock (violas) and Brooks Whitehouse and Ezerman (cellos).
This work, like the Bach, is in four movements, but in a different arrangement of tempi. The opening Allegro, in triple meter, provided a relaxed entry into this 40-minute performance. The movement contains a pair of themes that are pretty democratically distributed throughout the instruments. Uncharacteristic intonation issues with the violins did litle to disturb the flow. The second movement Andante is a set of variations, some dramatic, some lyric. The 3-minute scherzo is full of good humor with an obvious Beethoven influence. The finale is a rondo. Again, one was struck with how the melodic material was shared by all the instruments, especially the first violin, viola, and cello. Throughout, the six musicians listened carefully to each other and were sensitive to the nuances suggested. That’s what good chamber music is all about.