With strings soaring, brass blazing, and percussion pounding, the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of its long-time music director Dmitry Sitkovetsky, closed out its 2018-19 season in Dana Auditorium at Guilford College Thursday night with Variations on an Original Theme (more commonly known as the Enigma Variations) by Edward Elgar (1857-1934). This is a tour-de-force for the orchestra, and the GSO sank its teeth into the ultra-Romantic score.

The nickname for the piece came because the composer wrote the word “enigma” over the first six bars of music that begins the tune on which the 14 variations are based. The piece was dedicated “to my friends pictured within;” each variation depicts aspects of some of the composer’s friends.

And, oh, what a rich collection of friends Elgar apparently had! Starting with a tender portrait of his wife, Alice, the composer works his way through the different characters: the boisterous 4th variation representing his country squire friend, the lighthearted and stammering Dorabella variation, a section that quotes Mendelssohn, and even the finale, about Elgar himself, which returns several tunes heard previously.

The GSO played like gangbusters. Ensemble was tight throughout, and Sitkovetsky egged impressive extreme softs as well as exuberant playing from the group. Not everything was boisterous, of course, and the several solos displayed wonderful evocative playing, with abundant good spirits. A great end to the season!

The Third Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 37, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) featured the young Russian pianist Lukas Geniušas as soloist. The work was written in 1800 although not performed until 1803, with the composer at the keyboard. Mozart’s concerto in the same key served as a model, but the sound is clearly Beethoven.

The beginning of the sturdy opening movement, Allegro con brio, seemed a bit stodgy – it could have moved a bit more briskly and deliberately. After the orchestral introduction, the soloist entered, taking command of the work with upward scales. Geniušas proved to be both a powerful player as well as an expert in lyricism. The solo cadenza in this movement displayed both. His seemingly effortless playing of the many trills was amazing.

The slow middle movement allowed the pianist to explore a quasi-improvisation mood. This is heavenly music, an internal rumination which Beethoven would eventually take to an even more profound level in later years. The entire movement seemed to be an undertaking of love by all.

The final Rondo is a romp that is great fun for all participants, including the audience. There were a couple of ensemble problems – maybe the pianist rushed, or Sitkovetsky was caught off guard. Whatever, there were some ends that were not quite together. Nonetheless, the spirit of the piece clearly came through.

Geniušas treated the good-sized audience to a quirky encore by contemporary Ukrainian composer Leonid Desyarnikov (b.1955) from the cycle Songs of Bukovina, a set of piano preludes. (You can hear Geniušas play them on Youtube.)

The evening opened with Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-81). There is probably no piece of Classical music more famous than this piece (well, OK – maybe Beethoven’s Fifth or “Für Elise”). This arrangement began life as the slow movement from a string quartet written in 1936 and arranged for string orchestra the same year.

This is hauntingly beautiful music, used in several film scores for its evocative nature. Thursday night’s performance brought the independent string lines into relief (especially the rich violas). To this audience member, Sitkovetsky began some of the gentle phrases with not-so-gentle gestures. Nonetheless, the players responded with heart as the sinewy lines progressed toward the inexorable climax.

The program will be repeated on May 11 in the same venue. See the sidebar for details.