Music director Kevin Geraldi chose an eclectic and enterprising selection of all-American compositions for the University of North Carolina Greensboro Symphony Orchestra‘s season opening concert in the UNCG Auditorium. Geraldi conducted three works: Ives Variations on “America,” in William Schuman’s orchestration, Barber’s Violin Concerto, and four dances from Copland’s ballet Rodeo. Graduate conductor Niccoletta Moss directed an enterprising and rare performance of a tone poem by Florence Price. The featured violin soloist was faculty member Marjorie Bagley, who is also the concertmaster of the Greensboro Symphony and an active chamber musician.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) composed his amusing, quirky Variations on “America” (1891) for organ. “America” was the old national anthem based on the tune of Great Britain’s “God Save the King.” His score surely pulls out all the stops! Broadcast Music Inc. commissioned William Schuman (1910-92) in 1963 to orchestrate Ives’ work. Schuman gives full rein to the iconoclast’s nose-thumbing humor and, according to José Serbrier’s Naxos program note, “emphasizes the polytonality by using different instrumental blocks for each contrasting key.”

Geraldi led his fine student players in a very effective performance that gave full vent to all the rambunctious and rowdy portions of the score. Early in the opening there was some remarkably subtle, muted playing by the trumpets, almost as if off-stage. A highlight was variation 4, a sort of drunken polonaise featuring the tuba given a Spanish flavor with castanets and tambourine. Variation 3 featured a fine trumpet solo set against a quirky waltz. The string sections played with fine, unified tone and excellent intonation.

The genesis of the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 (1939), by Samuel Barber (1910-90) is clouded by ambiguity and misinformation. Curtis Institute of Music board trustee Samuel Fels commissioned a violin concerto for his ward, Iso Briselli. Barber composed the first two movements during that summer, in Switzerland. The dazzling, short finale was composed in the fall of 1940. Briselli opted not to accept it, so after some touchups, it was premiered by violinist Albert Spalding with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on February 7, 1941. Barber’s lyric mastery dominates the first two movements: Allegro and Andante, while the finale, “Presto in moto perpetuo,” makes hair-raising technical demands of the soloist.

Soloist Bagley, ably supported by Geraldi and the orchestra, delivered a richly nuanced interpretation. Phrasing was refined with just the right amount of rubato conveying Barber’s warm melodies with their hint of a sad undercurrent. This was especially true of the second movement, which featured a superb playing of the extended oboe solo; there was also some splendid, refined playing by the French horns in the opening movement. While Bagley played from a score, this did not inhibit her dazzling performance of the whirlwind thicket of notes in the finale.

Composer Florence Price (1887-1953) is finally receiving belated rediscovery. She was born of a mixed-race family in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she showed musical skills early. She studied music theory with George Chadwick along with organ and piano at the New England Conservatory of Music. She returned to teach and concertize in Arkansas, but racial tensions, culminating in a lynching, led her to move to Chicago. Her activities there led to her being the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer as well as being the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra when, on June 15, 1933, Frederick Stock led the Chicago Symphony in the premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor. The 2009 discovery of dozens of Price’s unpublished scores in an abandoned, dilapidated house near St. Ame, Illinois, has led to a reconsideration of her work. Among the rediscovered items were two violin concertos and the Symphony No. 4 in D minor. Through her thorough training in the European tradition, Price drew upon her Southern roots combining the rhythms and syncopation of spirituals along with melodies inspired by the blues.

Moss led a well-prepared performance of Price’s “The Oak,” a tone poem (1943) that was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. Moss selected the piece based upon a rare performance posted on YouTube. At the start, Price’s treatment of the lush strings reminded more of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde than the folk melodies of Dvořák. The melodies, leavened with dramatic episodes, are effective and interesting. A brief sad trumpet solo may have been influenced by the blues. Some of the portions featuring extra brass may reflected rhythms heard in spirituals. Moss and her players made a solid case for the composer and this piece.

The concert ended with a spirited performance of four dance episodes from the ballet Rodeo by Aaron Copland (1900-90). It was commissioned and premiered in 1942 by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with choreography by Agnes de Mille. The selections were: “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Corral Nocturne,” “Saturday Night Waltz,” and “Hoe-Down.” Geraldi led his musicians in a vivid, stylish performance with every orchestral section giving it their all. Among the highlights of the opening section was the boisterous insouciance of the solo trombone before his tune was taken up by the trumpet. Rhythms were well-sprung throughout. Hushed, lush strings and lovely woodwind solos, especially by the clarinet, abounded in the next two dances. Besides the infectious, foot-stomping rhythms in the “Hoe-Down,” the visual twirling of all the double basses was a hit with the audience.

An informative pre-concert program featured players and graduated students discussing aspects of the works. Moss was expansive about the rediscovery of Price’s compositions. Bagley dwelt upon the Barber piece and aspects of violin playing.