The headliner for this concert in the Greensboro Symphony Masterworks season was Moscow-born pianist Julia Zilberquit. This astounding performer commissioned the Russian composer Sergei Slonimsky (b.1932) to write a concerto for piano and orchestra.

His response, which he wrote for the 50th anniversary of the founding of Israel, was a three-movement work scored for flute, strings, and percussion entitled Jewish Rhapsody. The audience learned from the program notes that, although no actual Hebrew melodies are used in the work, the music hints at ancient Hebrew chants and Klezmer music. This listener was hard-pressed to hear much that was overtly “Jewish” until the finale, Allegro ben ritmato, which bursts with ethnic-infused tunes and dances.

The orchestra first intones a solemn motive in the opening Moderato before the piano takes off on an extended exploration of that idea in serious chordal clusters and unexpectedly brilliant virtuosic fireworks. This music is a hard sell: dissonant, uncompromising, thorny, and emotionally wrenching. The pianist conveyed all this with a devotion and dedication to communicate the seriousness of the score.

The Andante second movement is more plaintive and features several “conversations” that take place between the flute and one or two string instruments – cellos, violas – with the piano responding in lyric interludes. I was reminded of moments from the slow movements of Bartók’s piano concertos because of the solid construction, the uncompromising intensity, and the surprise of unexpected major triads.

The finale, as mentioned above, is alive with rhythm except for a few sections. A passage reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (complete with chimes) and a return of the first-movement motive provide respite. But mostly the music is about exuberant energy – much of the character is made evident by the prominent piccolo part and the percussion, especially the insistent wood block. The spirit of folk and dance once again brought Bartók to mind.

One would be hard pressed to find a more articulate, powerful, and committed advocate for this wonderful work than Ms. Zilberquit. She easily rose to the challenge of the fiendishly difficult arpeggios that spanned the entire keyboard, and her rich voicing of chordal passages was exquisite. Perhaps what was most amazing about the soloist’s playing was her ability to milk an amazing number of colors from the keyboard. Stunning.

Zilberquit treated the audience to an encore of a very different nature: Bach-Marcello’s Adagio, from a concerto in D minor. Pulsating left-hand chords support an expressive single melodic line in the right. Occasional filigree adorns the simple melody. Throughout, the pianist again displayed her unerring ear for wonderful shading and color.

The evening began with Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op.56a, by Johannes Brahms (1833-97). This sturdy 15-minute work is a showcase of color for the orchestra, and the orchestra delighted in the many changes of mood and character. Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky started the proceedings with a nice, upbeat tempo but slowed things down when called for. The playing was solid throughout other than a flub in the horns in the repeat of the opening tune; later inspired playing more than compensated.

Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 C, Op. 61, was composed in 1845 when the composer was 30 years old and recovering from a nervous breakdown. The opening seething strings, perhaps representing the composer’s turmoil, provide a cushion for the brass motto, which returns later in the symphony. Ensemble was not always as tight as it should have been, both in the first movement and later; the result was a loss of energy and excitement.

The emotional heart of the symphony lies in the third movement, Adagio espressivo. Here the poignant melody is initially given to the violins, but just as important is the tune played by solo oboe, flute, and clarinet. There was wonderful playing by principals. The finale was distinguished by terrific playing by the brass, creating a heroic conclusion.

And finally, why the “Friends and Admirers” title? Certainly it makes sense on several levels. Schumann was a champion of Brahms (and, of course, Brahms greatly admired the older composer’s work and the two were great friends). Zilberquit is obviously a fan of Slonimsky, and one can assume that the composer finds much to respect about both Brahms and Schumann. One final cool connection is that Zilberquit was a student of Sitkovetsky’s mother, Bella Davidovich, at the Juilliard School. It truly is a small world.

This program will be repeated on November 9 in Dana Auditorium. For details, see the sidebar.