Two works from the 20th century, paired with two 18th century compositions (redone in both the Baroque and in the 21st), were on tap in the latest installment of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra‘s Masterworks series. On the podium was GSO music director Dmitry Sitkovetsky.

The evening opened with the beloved suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring (1942), performed in its original guise for 13 instruments (double string quartet, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano). Composer Aaron Copland (US, 1900-90), later fleshed out the chamber original to a full orchestral score.

Copland’s compositional style, which has become, for many, the “American” sound of music, is perfectly presented in this score. The opening section (“Very slowly”) gently unfolds, revealing motives and characteristic sonorities that will be heard throughout the 25-minute work. The ensuing fast movement replaces the languid mood with cockeyed rhythmic vitality. Joyous and boisterous sections contrast with more introspective passages throughout. Of course, the quintessential Appalachian tune, “Simple Gifts,” comes just before the gentle conclusion.

This performance provided a great opportunity to witness just how good the first and second chairs of the string section are. Not to slight the strings by not naming all players (you can find all their names in the program), one must especially commend the superb playing of Debra Reuter-Privetta (flute), Kelly Burke (clarinet), Carol Bernstorf (bassoon), and Robert Rocco (piano). This intimate version of Appalachian Spring allows for a transparency of line that is absent in the full orchestral version, although the latter adds more color and volume. Many listeners probably would have preferred to hear that version. Indeed, sometimes Sitkovetsky’s grand conducting style seemed more suitable to a 70-piece orchestra than to the small group on the stage.

Although the two never met, Johann Sebastian Bach (Germany, 1685-1750) was a great fan of Antonio Vivaldi (Italy, 1678-1741). So much so that he transcribed at least nine of Vivaldi’s concertos, three for solo organ. The critically acclaimed artist for this GSO series of concerts, Julia Zilberquit (b.1971), played two of Bach’s transcriptions that she subsequently transcribed for piano and strings. (Vivaldi’s keyboard instrument in the originals would have most likely been harpsichord.)

The Concerto in A minor (S.593 is Bach’s catalogue number, RV 522 is Vivaldi’s) is a three-movement affair: fast, slow, fast. Zilberquit immediately revealed good rhythmic vitality and a wonderful athleticism in her playing. The slow movement, which is saturated with dismay expressed in descending octave leaps, showed her tender, lyric playing to good effect. The final movement provided a showpiece for her facility.

The Concerto in D minor (S.596, RV 565) is shaped differently: the opening features the animated piano accompanied by a repeated descending bass line. A short slow passage follows, erupting into a spirited fugue. The slow movement, a Siciliano with its distinctive rhythm, was beautifully played. Fleet fingers flew in the finale.

We won’t get into Baroque versus contemporary performance practices (harpsichord versus piano, for example); suffice it to say that it is wonderful to hear such magnificent music in any guise. While the energy and mood were shared by both strings and soloist, sometimes ensemble was not great between the two, especially in the fast sections (like the fugue and the finale of both concertos).

Zilberquit (who has played twice before in past seasons with the GSO) returned for a Baroque encore: the Bach transcription of the slow movement of the Oboe Concerto in D minor by Alessandro Marcello (Italy, 1686-1739). The pianist’s playing was ravishingly dark.

The evening concluded with a wild symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich (Russia, 1906-75). His Symphony No. 9 in E-flat, Op. 90 was written in 1945 to celebrate the Allied victory over the Nazis. One might think the work would display proud heroism; instead, raucous celebration is more the prevalent mood, coupled with sardonic humor, and a good amount of what could be described as circus music.

The entire large orchestra greedily sunk its teeth into this five-movement piece that showcases every section in the orchestra, with solos galore for first-chair players, especially in the winds. Impressive solos from flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon and even piccolo (vigorously played by Carla Copeland-Burns) were the order of the night.

Sitkovetsky led the big orchestra with calm dignity in the recitative-like moments and with energy and discipline in the boisterous moments that dominated the 25-minute work.

Zilberquit will return to the stage with Sitkovetsy and Friends on Saturday, October 18. The program and details may be read here.

The full orchestra returns October 19 with a repeat of the program reviewed above. For details, see the sidebar.