The War Memorial Auditorium was the location of the final concert of the season of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra paired with the dependable and well-drilled Choral Society of Greensboro. Music Director Dmitri Sitkovetsky chose a program of real rarities to display the strengths of both ensembles.

The only surviving chamber work by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) came about due to the sickness of his lead soprano, Teresa Stolz, during a production of his opera Aida in Naples in early March, 1873. About his first chamber work, String Quartet in E Minor, Verdi commented “I don’t know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I know that it’s a Quartet!” According to “it consists of four substantial and technically demanding movements, and has been widely admired for the forcefulness of its musical ideas and its structural cohesion.” It is rarely heard in its original form and has been infrequently recorded. It is certainly the stron gest quartet by the famous Nineteenth Century Italian opera composers.

Sitkovetsky chose to perform the quartet in its alternate string orchestra version, and he made use of the full string sections of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra. I share a distaste for “inflated” transcriptions of chamber works for larger forces with several of my CVNC colleagues. This performance was as good as any to show off the refinement Sitkovetsky has brought to the orchestra’s strings. There was nothing bloated about it. Musical textures were clearly articulated and carefully balanced. Dynamics were refined, the tempos were apt, and the musical lines sang. During the urgent opening movement, aspects of the composer’s opera Luisa Miller came to mind. Except for a brief intense, fast section near its end, most of the second movement was light and lilting and full of melody. The swirling music of the third movement brought to mind the party scenes from either Un Ballo in Maschera or Rigoletto. The gorgeous singing line of the cellos was richly expressive. The composer’s contrapuntal mastery was evident throughout the massive fugue in the last movement. Sitkovetsky’s musicians brought out every interwoven musical strand beautifully.

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) composed all of his 20 operas before he retired at age 37 in 1829. Until late in life, he contented himself by living the life of a gourmand. Besides enjoying the good life in Parisian salons, he composed mostly small piano pieces for his private pleasure. These he called Péchés de Vielillesse (Sins of Old Age). Two major choral works were completed late in his life, two versions of his Petite Messe Solennelle (version No. 1 in 1864 and version No. 2 in 1867). Sitkovetsky’s selection, Rossini’s masterful Stabat Mater had a more checkered and delayed genesis. Rossini composed six numbers of it in 1832, leaving Giovanni Taldoni to compose the remaining six. Rossini scraped Taldoni’s numbers in 1841 and composed the remaining four numbers of this final version himself. The composer’s gift for dramatic effect and for melody is evident in every bar! The quartet of vocal soloists has plenty of challenging music and great demands are placed upon the choir. The orchestration is imaginative and subtle.

The Choral Society of Greensboro, prepared by Jon Brotherton, was superb. The group has an even mix of sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, tenors, and basses. Their diction was excellent. The text could be easily followed in the symphony staff’s thoughtfully provided insert. It listed both the Latin words AND the English translation while the chorus members were listed on the back. One of the most striking numbers was No. 5 “Eia, Mater, fons amors” (“O thou Mother! Fount of love”). It began with a cappella men’s voices with the full unaccompanied chorus joining later. Another was No. 8, the stirring “Flammis ne urar succensus” (“Be to me, O Virgin, nigh”) for soprano soloist, choir, and trumpets. The concluding extended “Amen” was also impressive.

Sitkovetsky was blessed with an outstanding quartet of vocal soloists. Both women soloists were familiar to me from the Spoleto Festival USA. Radiant-voiced soprano Jennifer Check started out as a member of the Westminster Choir and later was superb as the soloist for Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem reviewed by CVNC. In a much earlier season of the festival, mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski performed songs on Charles Wadsworth’s Chamber Music Series. Both male singers are products of what was called the North Carolina School of the Arts. CVNC reviewed outstanding tenor René Barbera in two of UNCSA’s productions, the 2005 Donizetti’ Belisario and the 2006 Mozart’s Idomeneo, as well as the gala reopening of UNCG’s Aycock Auditorium in 2008. Besides a 2009 Piedmont Opera production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro with bass-baritone Leonard Rowe, CVNC covered his recent Porgy in the 75th Anniversary tour of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Barbera brought out a warm and wonderful Italianate sound in the very operatic No. 2, “O quam tristis et afflicta” (“O how sad and sore distressed”). His evenly supported voice and precisely focused intonation were a delight. His sustained high note in the ending line “nati poenas inclyti” was breath-taking. Soprano Check’s powerful and pure voice was on full display in No. 8 “Flammis…” while she blended meltingly with tenor Barbera in No. 6 “Tui Nati vulnerati” (let me share with thee His pain). Mezzo-soprano Ciesinski’s ample and flexible voice was memorable in both “Quis non posset contristari” (“Can the human heart refrain”) within No. 3 and in No. 7 “Fac, ut portem Christi mortem” (“Let me, to my last breath”). The latter was accompanied by horns and the clarinet of Kelly Burke and the bassoon of Carol Bernstorf. Rowe’s solid lower bass-baritone range richly resonated in No. 4 “Pro peccatis suae gentis” (“For the sins of His own nation”). The ending section “Quando corpus morietur” (“When my body lies”) was arresting and moving. The quartet moved closer around Sitkovetsky’s podium and delivered the lines a capella followed by the extended choral “Amen” supported by the orchestra. The orchestra played superbly throughout the whole work.