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Greensboro Symphony Orchestra Music Director Dmitri Sitkovetsky welcomed the nice-sized and masked audience to the first Rice Toyota Sitkovetsky and Friends chamber music concert in a year and a half. Sitkovetsky said something like, "we hit the pause button a long time ago and now we're pushing the play button." The unusually long concert (a combination of two planned but cancelled programs) included the music of Beethoven and Debussy.
The first piece was the six-movement Serenade, Op. 25 for flute, violin, and viola by Ludwig van Beethoven. Joining Sitkovetsky (violin) in this unusual combination of instruments were principal chairs of the GSO: Debra Reuter-Pivetta (flute) and Scott Rawls (viola). During Mozart's time, a serenade was an entertainment piece, often played outdoors. The mood of Beethoven's work, completed in 1801, was very much designed to please the listener.
The opening Allegro began with a perky flute tune buoyantly played by Reuter-Pivetta, quickly answered by the violin. Indeed, one of the wonderful characteristics of the entire piece is the equal sharing of important melodic lines between the three instruments.
The second movement Minuet is distinguished by sudden loud articulations that interrupted the gentle mood. The third movement Allegro molto is stormy in nature with a middle section in a major key, providing some shelter from the outer sections.
The slower Andante con Variazioni is built around a gentle theme which is subjected to multitudinous manipulations with variations featuring one of the three instruments – all part and parcel of Beethoven's compositional bag of tricks.
The Allegro scherzando is a lively romp with a couple of diversions. The finale begins with a slow quasi-serious introduction before the lively and jerky main tune takes off.
Throughout the nearly 30-minute work, all three musicians seemed to take delight in the many antics inherent in the score; one could see each musician smile at each cute passage. Ensemble connection among the three was first-rate, as was communication. It was great to hear a seldom-performed work played with such finesse.
As stagehands prepared for the next work, Sitkovetsky "confessed" that his life as a musician had been given over to solo literature, conducting, and arranging, and he did not have time to engage in much string quartet playing. So, the musicians for this performance were the concertmistress and associate and assistant chairs of the GSO: Marjorie Bagley and Emi Hildebrand (violins), Eric Koontz (viola), and Jennifer Alexandra Johnston, cello.
Claude Debussy wrote his only string quartet in 1893, when he was 31 years old. Although Debussy is particularly known for his orchestral works, this chamber piece written for four solo lines is orchestral in nature. While there is no shortage of prominent melodies for each instrument, the work notably explores various textures as an ensemble, rather than focusing on individual lines.
The beginning of the opening movement presents a distinctive motto (a melody) that returns in various guises throughout the four-movement work. All four players dove into the music, which contains several hysterically intense and frenetic passages and sudden changes in mood.
The second movement is distinguished by plucking of strings as accompaniment, over which bowed snippets of melody appear. Twittering textures and an appearance of the motto provide great contrast. The captivating, hypnotic slow movement, with its wandering solo lines and use of muted strings, takes the listener into another world.
The finale brings back some of the frenetic nature of the first movement as well as the unison lines, and, of course, the theme. The four musicians played with utter engagement, bringing out both the passion and the mysterious nature of the score. Although intonation was not always perfect, there was no lack of commitment from the quartet.
The concert concluded with Beethoven's sunny Violin Sonata No. 5 in F, Op. 24 ("Spring"), performed by Sitkovetsky and GSO's guest pianist, Olga Kern. Kern is a co-winner of the Gold Medal of the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition, as well as the winner of several other awards. Having heard her authoritative performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 on Saturday night, I was anxious to hear her in a more intimate venue.
The opening Allegro presents a sunny, lyric melody at the outset, initially given to the violin. It is picked up shortly by the piano, and the two share the melodic material throughout the four-movement work. It was a pleasure to hear Sitkovetsky's violin playing again since the last time he performed in Greensboro. Unerring intonation and a gorgeous tone are only two of his trademarks. Kern's playing was powerful and extroverted, but it never covered the violin. Coupled with that power was incredible facility and sensitivity.
The slow, lyrical second movement is a beautiful respite with exquisite playing by Sitkovetsky and Kern, who worked perfectly together as co-explorers of the gorgeous music landscape. The third-movement Scherzo couldn't be more different, lasting barely a minute and a half. It is unrestrained in energy with wonderfully syncopated rhythms.
The finale is an extended rondo with many contrasting sections. Again, the two musicians offered exquisite playing, matching each other's slight deviations of tempo and character resulting in a completely satisfying performance.
The duo offered a short encore: a transcription by Jascha Heifetz of Rachmaninoff's song "Daisies." The romantic gem provided a wonderful pom-pom to close out a great afternoon of music-making.