Although the concert highlighted Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique as the main event of Saturday night’s performance by the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, it was guest pianist Emanuel Ax who was fantastic. The pianist last played with the GSO in 2009 and is a seven-time Grammy award winner (five of those with cellist/collaborator Yo-Yo Ma). He was called in as a substitute for scheduled pianist, Ingrid Fliter, who had a family medical emergency.

Ax performed Piano Concerto No. 2 by Frédéric Chopin (Poland, 1810-49). Like Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto, this work was actually written before the “first” concerto but was published later. Chopin was a student at the Warsaw Conservatory when he composed the work in 1829.

The opening movement begins with a stormy and dramatic introduction by the orchestra. The piano comes in with a more ruminating phrase that eventually becomes lyric and dramatic, by turns. Ax’s playing of the filigree was sparkling but the dramatic presence was never lost.

The slow Larghetto movement is a beautiful gem, inspired by Chopin’s infatuation with fellow student, soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. Ax’s deep feeling for the profound emotion of the piece was intense; often his playing took on the air of improvisation as he employed a great deal of rhythmic freedom in his musings. His refined and graceful playing provided an intimate look at beauty.

The finale is a virtuoso romp. The technical challenges were no match for Ax’s flying fingers. The last couple of minutes were ushered in by unerring playing by principal horn Robert Campbell; this final section allows for the piece to end in a major mode as well as providing more fireworks for the pianist.

The enthusiastic audience was mesmerized by a warmly played Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No. 1 by Chopin. This enthralling work in the hands of an artist such as Ax, with its rich harmonies and gorgeous melodies, tends to bring tears to the eyes. The moments of drama toward the end gave witness once again to Ax’s technical chops as well as his integration of both the fervent with the gentle.

Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz (France, 1803-69) is an hour-long, five-movement story of Berlioz’s love for British actress Harriet Smithson. The 1830 work was a ground-breaking composition, incorporating a recurring melody (the idée fixe) in an instrumental work that tells a story, which is the very definition of program music. A predecessor was Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 (“Pastorale”) also in five movements, written some 40 years earlier, but without so much of a program.

The opening “Reveries – Passions” is a slow introduction to the gentle nature of the protagonist. It also introduces the idée fixe, which is heard in various guises throughout the movement. The hero encounters his beloved in the second movement “A ball,” which calls for two lovingly played harps, led by principal Helen Rifas.

“Scene in the Fields” returns the languid motion from the first movement. Here, the hero finds comfort and rest surrounded by nature. A melancholic English horn solo, tenderly played by Anna Lampidis, imitates a cowherd’s melody. In “March to the Scaffold,” the protagonist becomes unhinged. He dreams he has killed his beloved.

All hell breaks loose in the finale, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” where his beloved has been transformed into a witch. With a total of five percussionists, the satanic dance becomes terrifying and horrific. This was music that was perfectly chosen as the background music to the movie The Shining, starring a deranged Jack Nicholson.

Throughout the long work, conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky and company maintained focus and appropriately captured the myriad moods presented in the music. Indeed, one wonders if the presence of Ax somehow elevated the quality of the playing the entire evening.

The concert opened with a solid performance of the Overture to Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter) by Carl Maria von Weber (Germany, 1786-1826). Usually credited with creating the first German Romantic opera, which leads to the operas by Wagner and Strauss, Der Freischütz tells the story of human love, magic, and bargains with the devil, all appropriately set in a dark forest.

The 10-minute piece incorporates a quartet of solidly sounded hunting horns as well as creepy string melodies over a foreboding drumbeat. Eventually, passion erupts with stirring string passages and the entire brass section. The Overture was a perfect opening for a concert that featured some great playing by the GSO, under the guidance of music director Sitkovetsky.