Orchestral Music Review

GSO's Revelatory Berg and Mahler Combo

October 20, 2007 - Greensboro, NC:

Greensboro Symphony Orchestra Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky is to be congratulated for the sophistication of his programming on the second concert of this Masterworks Series’ season. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony has been heard frequently throughout the state, but a performance with interpretative depth and polished playing is always welcome. Performances of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, on the other hand, have been as rare as finding a fine pearl in an order of oysters. This War Memorial Auditorium performance was only the second fully professional performance of the masterpiece I have heard in over three decades of avid concert going in this state.

Boston-based violinist Louis Krasner, who had commissioned Arnold Schoenberg’s thorny Violin Concerto, approached Alban Berg (1885-1935) with a proposal for another concerto. Berg refused since he was completing his opera Lulu. The eighteen-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma, the remarried widow of Gustav Mahler, died in May. Calling Manon "an Angel," Berg was moved to drop work on the opera and compose the Violin Concerto as a requiem. Berg’s fatal blood infection from a bee sting made the work a double requiem. The concerto was finished, but the opera was left truncated until legal restrictions imposed by Berg’s widow expired, allowing others to complete the score.

The four movements of Berg’s Violin Concerto are organized into two parts with a pause between the second and third movements only. According to George Perle, in notes for CBS/Sony’s reissue of Isaac Stern’s recording, “the first pair of movements, an 'Andante' preceded by a ten-bar introduction, and an 'Allegretto' scherzo that incorporates a Carinthian folksong shortly before its close, presents a musical portrait of Manon." Her struggle with illness and death are represented by the second pair, “a long cadenza (Allegro) and a set of variations (Adagio) on a Bach chorale, 'Es ist genug'." Berg’s unique personal use of twelve-tone techniques makes this work much more audience friendly than Schoenberg's violin concerto. Much of the time, the soloist is paired with small sections of the orchestra, giving it a chamber-music quality. Despite the compositional formality, there is no lack of emotional warmth in the piece.

Leila Josefowicz brought seemingly effortless technique and unshakeable confidence to her interpretation of the solo violin part. Her intonation was flawless and her articulation of complicated passages was breath-taking. Sitkovetsky led a sophisticated accompaniment, sensitive to every abrupt change of dynamic or tone by his soloist, with edge-of-the-seat attention from his orchestra musicians.

The stage was packed with extra musicians for the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor. There were seven horn players in the section led by Robert Campbell. Among the extras was Winston-Salem Symphony principal horn Frederick Bergstone. The brass sections were in glorious form, especially the horns and trumpeter Anita Cirba, who intoned the important solitary trumpet that announces the first and most important theme of the first movement’s Funeral March. The string sections produced a fine, full, and warm sound. Sitkovetsky’s antiphonal seating of the two violin sections on either side of the podium helped reveal much inner details, such as the second violin leader, Steven B. Harper’s brief solo. Longer expressive principal string solos were given by concertmaster John Fadial, violist Scott Rawls, and cellist Beth Vanderborgh. A memorable episode was an impassioned passage for the cellos supported by a steady piano bass rhythm from timpanist Peter Zlotnick. Woodwinds matched the high standards of their colleagues with important solos from flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta, clarinetist Kelly Burke, bass clarinetist James Kalyn, and bassoonist Carol Bernstorf. (The list could go on at length.) Sitkovetsky had a firm over-view of the symphony and kept it from sprawling out of control. His interpretation was among the most convincing of the many fine performances of the work I have heard.