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The second concert of the 59th season of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, played in the acoustically pleasing Dana Auditorium at Guilford College, was billed as "The Great Tchaikovsky" and featured the world-class Northern Irish pianist and Van Cliburn Competition winner Barry Douglas and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44.
Much less frequently played than the First Piano Concerto in B-flat minor (Op. 23), the second nonetheless is great music, particularly the sweetly sentimental second movement and the rousing finale, marked Allegro con fuoco [Fast with fire]. From the start, soloist Douglas proved himself the conqueror of this difficult and passionate work. The martial theme that opens the first movement starts in the orchestra and is immediately repeated by the pianist using a fat chord on each beat. This dialogue continues until the piano plays one of many short cadenzas and eventually a gigantic one. An abrupt string tremolo introduces a lyrical second theme expressively played in imitation by clarinetist Kelly Burke and hornist Robert Campbell, with a hint of vibrato!
Unfortunately, someone had made the decision to play an abridged version of the concerto, cutting some of the most charming music from the second movement, a long solo duet for violin and cello. What remained, a fraction of the original, was admirably played by concertmaster Marjorie Bagley and principal cellist Alexander Ezerman. Just for this duet (or triple concerto, including the piano), it would have been worthwhile to have changed the string seating, with the cellos to the right of the conductor, principal cellist nearest the audience. The third movement starts energetically, sounding like a piano version of a Beethoven string quartet (Op. 59, No. 1) but quickly turning to the carnivalesque and mysterious with lots of folk-tune-sounding themes. Douglas stood out in this movement with virtuosity, playing the tricky rapid passages with panache and flair. Unfortunately, the orchestral accompaniment, particularly in the third movement, was ponderous and even occasionally sluggish. However, the audience was on its feet cheering at the end, and the soloist rewarded it with a delightful rendition of the Hungarian Dance No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.
I had questioned the order of the program, placing the piano concerto alone in the first half and the cheerful Eighth Symphony in F, Op. 93, by Beethoven as the only work in the second half of the concert, but in fact, it turned out to be quite satisfactory because of the high quality of the orchestra's performance. Tempos were goodalthough not as fast as Beethoven suggested – but that is a thorny problem previously discussed in these pages.
The only consistent challenge seemed to be a lack of balance in the loud passages – despite a strong string section, in the fortes the small brass section (two trumpets and two horns) dominated, perhaps due to the elevated horns' proximity to the back wall, which reflects the sound. I also missed any real pianissimi until the last movement. However, the large bass (7) and cello (8) sections successfully fixed the climax of the first movement where the entire orchestra is marked fff (extremely loud), almost always drowning out the returning theme in the low instruments – but this performance was great, perfectly balanced!
The dramatic moment in the last movement when the orchestra repeatedly tries to force the piece into the distant key of F-sharp minor but the timpanist and brass finally hammer the movement back into F major was spectacular – as were the closing moments when timpanist Peter Zlotnick played octave "Fs" in quick succession to end the work with a "bang!"
The program will be repeated Saturday evening. See the sidebar for details.