Dana Auditorium, on the bucolic Guilford College campus, is an ideal venue for orchestral concerts. For this Greensboro Symphony concert, music director Dmitry Sitkovetsky chose an eclectic and unusual program – two excerpts featuring solo cello from pieces by Camille Saint-Saëns and Leonard Bernstein paired with a less-often-performed symphony by Antonin Dvořák. The soloist was Andrés Díaz, a cellist familiar to music lovers who attended the Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series during the 1995-2008 timeframe. He won the 1986 Naumburg International Cello Competition which helped launch his extensive international career.

The concert opened with “The Swan” from the Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns. The original version of Carnival parodied famous musicians portrayed as animals in a zoo over the course of fourteen movements and with an eclectic variety of instruments. “The Swan” is the penultimate movement, festuring solo cello and two pianos. For this performance, Sitkovetsky transcribed the keyboard parts for orchestra.

Díaz spun a gorgeous, seamless, and warm cantilena melody with his 1698 Matteo Goffriler cello. The hushed strings suggested the rippling waves as the swan passed. A subtle harp and tiny, tinkling bells added to the mood. Sitkovetsky’s accompaniment was very evocative.

Next came Three Meditations from Bernstein’s quasi-religious staging of the Mass, loosely modelled after the elements of the Roman mass. Bernstein’s setting mixes loss of faith with anti-war messages. Bernstein arranged the Meditations for cello and piano for Rostropovich and later led the debut of the orchestrated version October 11, 1977, with the National Symphony Orchestra. Meditation No. 1 (Lento assai) is drawn from a section between the Mass‘s Confession and Gloria. “Meditation No. 2 is a set of four variations with a coda based on an eleven-note sequence from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, leading to the great outburst of “Brüder!” (Brothers!). Meditation No. 3 is derived from various parts of the Mass – the “Epiphany,” a kind of solo fantastia, “In Nomine Patris,” a trance-lie dance, and the Chorale “Almighty Father.”

Díaz drew upon an extensive cornucopia of cello techniques to bring out the vitality of Bernstein’s mix of styles – eerie high notes bowed close to the bridge, a plethora of pizzicatos including a dramatic Bartók ricochet off the fingerboard, along with masterful control of color and dynamics. Sitkovetsky and his musicians brought out all the drama in the score with fine work from brass, woodwinds, an organ, and not least a range of percussion. The strings were alert for every shift in the score.

The popular “New World” Symphony by Dvořák is so often programed that some of his earlier symphonies are neglected. The sunny No. 8 gets its share, but the dramatic No. 7, less so. Of the interesting middle symphonies (4-6), the infectious, joyous Symphony No. 6 in D, Op. 60, has increasingly worked its way into the repertoire. While overflowing with Dvořák’s originality, the Sixth Symphony is modelled after Brahms’ sunny Second, a tribute to a composer who had encouraged the Czech’s early career. It is in four movements: Allegro non tanto, Adagio, Scherzo: Furiant: Presto, and Finale: Allegro con spirit.

Every section of the Greensboro Symphony was in top form and responsive to Sitkovetsky’s stylish interpretation. Horns and winds were delightful. The strings brought out the rich, romantic melodies, not least in the glorious slow movement highlighted by oboe and horn solos. The rhythmic complexities of the “furiant” and Finale came off superbly.

This program will be repeated April 5, 2019. Andrés Díaz can be heard performing the Kodaly Duo, Op. 7, and Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No. 2, Op. 87, in the April 6 Sitkovetsky & Friends concert at UNCG Recital Hall. For details, see the sidebar and our calendar.

Note: Andrés is in the Díaz Trio with violinist/violist brother Roberto Díaz, who is playing with the NC Symphony in Don Quixote on Apr. 5 & 6.