Orchestral Music Review

GSO Opening Night Spectacular: Prelude to the Next Level

September 18, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:

Despite Hurricane Isabel's brusque parting squalls, a respectable audience was on hand in Greensboro War Memorial Auditorium on September 18 for the eagerly anticipated debut of the new Greensboro Symphony Orchestra Music Director, Dmitry Sitkovetsky. During the 2002-3 season, all the prospective candidates commented favorably on the solid musical and fiscal qualities of the orchestra and its organization, its attitude and that of its community, and their collective desire to take them to the next level of excellence.

Sitkovetsky's opening program of three substantial and well-known repertory works gave ample aural evidence of the prospects of this new level. There was as well a wholly new "old" layout of players on stage: the two violin sections were seated on either side of the conductor, the cellos were behind the first violins, backed by the doublebasses, and the violas were seated behind the second violins, on the right. The woodwinds were on risers behind the cellos and violas, and the horns were behind them. The trumpets and trombones were in the back right corner, and the percussion battery and timpani were on either side of the double basses on the left rear stage. In the "Meet the Artists" session after the concert, the conductor reminded everyone that classical music from the 18th century through the mid-twentieth century was composed with the contrast between the two violin sections intended to be seen as well as heard. This traditional seating plan has been retained by the Vienna Philharmonic, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and the Seattle Symphony. Add to this the detailed attention of a conductor who is a world class string virtuoso and the GSO and its strings have never sounded better.

Whole new refinements of orchestral dynamics were immediately apparent in the quiet and ominous opening to Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (2nd version, 1919). Seldom have so many nuances of pianissimo and piano been savored in the central Piedmont. Only a couple more doublebass players or acoustics like Winston-Salem's Stevens Center could have improved things. All the string sections played with improved tight ensemble and new warmth. All the section principals had excellent solos, too - Concertmaster John Fadial, cellist Beth Vanderborgh, violist Scott Rawls, and, prominently, oboist Cara Fish, flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta, bassoonist Carol Bernstein, and clarinetist Kelly Burke. The horn solo by Robert Campbell was particularly fine, and the entire horn section was in great form most of the evening.

After the concert, piano soloist Stella Simakova described Camille Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22, as "Bach through Offenbach." The opening "Bach-like" solo cadenza, with what Edward Downes (in The New York Guide to the Symphony ) described as its "great splashing arpeggios and thundering chords before the orchestra enters," was outstanding. Despite her slight physical build, Simakova produced a rich, full dynamic when needed. In both the delicious scherzo and the hell-bent-for-leather presto, her articulation was astonishing. The orchestral accompaniment was ideally balanced and there was chamber music-like interaction between Simakova and orchestra players, most memorably a "call and response" passage between pianist and the flute and oboe.

This concerto is one of the warhorses of the conductor's mother, Bella Davidovich, so he has been intimately familiar it with from his childhood. Simakova studied it with Davidovich in the early '90s, when her approach was much faster than her teacher's. Her view has now changed, she said, adding that it is "more important what you [have] to say than how fast you [can] play it." These and other comments were made during the after-concert conversation, when an observation that neither the soloist nor the conductor looked at each other elicited some interesting thoughts from both. Simakova said that she was rather busy "with all those notes!"; and Sitkovetsky, reflecting on his experience as both a soloist and a conductor, stressed that he eschews empty meaningful glances at soloists, adding that it is critical that the conductor both hear and anticipate what the soloist is doing since by the time it is seen, it's already too late!

Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, received a splendid performance, well within current interpretative parameters, but it sounded fresh - not easy to do with this chestnut. The new seating plan paid dividends as the critical low string parts - especially the cellos and violas - came through with a new richness. All the already-named section leaders had superb solos, particularly oboist Fish. Most of the horn work was outstanding but there was a "burble" near the end, a relatively minor blemish. This evening was most auspicious for the future growth of the orchestra.

Note: This program will be repeated at 8:00 p.m. 9/20.