In case it has escaped your attention, Lenny celebrates his 100th birthday this season. Born in Massachusetts on August 25, 1918, Leonard Bernstein was a conductor, a pianist, an educator, and an author. But for the sake of posterity, he was above all a composer. The Greensboro Symphony opened its 2018-19 season in Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guildford College with a concert celebrating the most popular works of Bernstein as well as a nostalgic vignette of Gustav Mahler, whose music was his (Lenny’s) life-long passion.

The very popular Overture to the operetta Candide, first premiered in 1956, opened the concert with verve and excitement. Choosing a sober tempo, music director Dmitri Sitkovetsky led a clean and crisp opener. The horns sounded good as did the large string section (45 players), although they tended to drown out the several flute solos.

Although an experienced and accomplished conductor, Maestro Sitkovetsky is at his most alluring when he sheds his baton and picks up his bow (and violin) and assumes his place as a world-class violin soloist. Indeed, Greensboro audiences have been spoiled by his frequent appearances as a soloist with the orchestra. On this occasion he confirmed this as he gave a magnificent performance of Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), a five-movement concerto in all but name.

For this work, Bernstein eliminated all winds and brass and added various percussion at the back of the orchestra. Each movement is named after one of the seven characters in the Symposium (except the first and last movements, where two characters each are portrayed). The character of the music matches the speaker’s optic on the general theme of “Love.” Thus one praises spiritual love, another (the doctor) details the anatomy and mechanics of love in a funny scherzo that natters and nit-picks, using xylophone to great effect.

The long and powerful Adagio (Agathon) builds to a tremendous climax which abruptly turns into harshly punctuated tremolos in the lower strings while the violin solo grows into a short cadenza. Finally, it is Socrates’ turn himself to converse – a lovely duet of violin and cello solo (Alexander Ezerman). Dionysus, inhabiting the body of Alcibiades, breaks in and “turns the party rowdy” (in the words of the program notes).

This was the best playing of the evening and the most interesting piece, too. The string tone was rich and full, and articulations were uniformly precise. The balance between soloist and orchestra was excellent. Percussion added color and character to the movements. And as mentioned, soloist Sitkovetsky was outstanding.

Managing the orchestra required another set of hands than the soloist and the GSO made a felicitous choice in inviting Kevin Geraldi from UNC-Greensboro to conduct the ensemble. He was very effective, with a lovely legato beat. He carried himself with a certain elegance and sway on the podium.

The second half of the concert saw the return of Maestro Sitkovetsky to the podium to introduce the only non-Bernstein work of the evening, Mahler’s “Blumine,” testimony to Bernstein’s passion for Mahler’s works, although according to the Mahler website, Bernstein never conducted the piece. The movement is sentimental with a beautiful quiet ending. Anita Cirba‘s lovely trumpet solo was darkly nostalgic and tentative – and there was a splendid octave glissando in the cellos and violas.

“Blumine” was in stark contrast to the brusque and violent adaptation of themes from Bernstein’s famous musical into “Symphonic Dances” (from West Side Story). This was an excellent performance although in the first few moments there was a jinx against high notes in the brass solos, soon to be overcome. The percussion section, led by Wiley Sikes, was outstanding, as were the written jazz improvisations of Debra Pivetta, flute, and Kelly Burke, clarinet.

The concert repeats on Saturday, September 22, at 8PM in Dana Auditorium. See the sidebar for details.