The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra began both their 2010-11 Season and their Masterworks series with a pair of concerts that they called “Vienna’s Great Exiles.” Not sure of the literal meaning of this since neither Beethoven nor Brahms could be considered an exile, and our two Russian principals, conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky and guest pianist Vladimir Feltsman, had artistic issues with the Soviet regime, not Vienna. This second performance of this program, at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium, was a powerhouse evening of favorites played with electrifying energy and grace.

Beethoven’s overture to his sole opera Fidelio was actually the third such version with the previous two using the name “Leonore” overtures. This brief work has all the characteristics of Beethoven’s style and was a great warm-up act for the more substantial acts to follow. But for someone like this writer who has had limited exposure to the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, it was a wonderful introduction to all the sections of this outstanding ensemble and its charismatic and expressive conductor and music director, Dmitry Sitkovetsky.

There has been more written about the opening four-note motive of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 than other, entire large-scale works. Everything from “fate knocking” to the “V” for victory Morse code translation, this brief musical kernel is merely the start of an incredible transformation in only the first movement of a symphonic work overflowing with magnificent treasures. Despite it leading the pack in the often derogatory term of “warhorse,” I, for one, never tire of hearing this symphony – when it is well played, and tonight was one of the best. The beautiful second movement theme introduced by the cellos, was an example of what a great section should sound like and the variations to follow were a source of constantly evolving beauty. Sitkovetsky is an example of the rare conductor who is demonstrative but not garish and showy, energetic and passionate, yet also presents a clear and precise beat pattern that all musicians can rely on. This was especially apparent in the ethereal bridge between the third and fourth movements where the trumpets sound and we inexorably race to the climactic and insistent final chords. 

Calling Johannes Brahms’ second composition for piano and orchestra a “concerto” is like saying the Grand Canyon is just a ravine; such is its unparalleled power, length, technical difficulty and nearly bottomless source of ideas. Completed in 1881, Brahms himself was the soloist in the premiere and played it a dozen more times throughout Europe in the following month. This is one of the few four movement concertos and, unbelievably enough, Brahms added a Scherzo because he found the first movement “too simple.”

The piano soloist was Vladimir Feltsman, the Russian-born virtuoso who demonstrated the powerful sound and commanding presence that has made him a legend. The opening horn solo set the subdued and haunting atmosphere of the opening movement but that quickly changed when Feltsman came in and knocked us out of our seats. But he soon showed that aggressiveness was not his only gear and he played as poetically as one can wish for in the slower passages. This mammoth work is far from just a showcase for the soloist, and the orchestra was inspiring and flawless in their very demanding parts. One cannot speak of this concerto without mentioning the achingly beautiful cello solo that begins, and continues throughout the third movement. Principal cellist Beth Vanderborgh played this with beautiful tone and gorgeous phrasing that went straight to the heart and soul of everyone present. This performance was a rare treat, since I do not see this programmed as much as the other big Romantic piano concertos, and the combination of these two great Russian souls, Sitkovetsky and Feltsman, produced a musical experience that will long be remembered.

The only unfortunate part of the concert and the concerto in particular, is the fact that many in the audience insisted on clapping between every movement. There have been many arguments regarding classical concert etiquette and I can see the merits to all facets of this discussion, however, when both the conductor and soloist clearly gestures to  not clap between movements and that courteous request is ignored, it affects the concentration of the musicians and flow of the music and is simply unacceptable. Feltsman even went so far as to gesture at the end of the concerto that “NOW, you can clap.”