An all-Russian program seemed to make special connections with Russian-born Greensboro Symphony Orchestra Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky. A large and appreciative (sometimes, too much so) audience responded warmly to the GSO’s inspired playing. And the median age was considerably lower than usual, as about 500 college students joined the usual concert-goers for College Night.

The evening opened with a luscious crème-puff, Mussorgsky’s “Dawn on the Moscow River,” the introduction to the composer’s never-completed opera Khovanshchina. This evocative five-minute prelude paints a perfect picture of early morning and featured lovely liquid playing from the winds including solos by flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and English horn. Two harps added to the ethereal sound, and bells in the middle section conjured up the composer’s great Boris Godunov.

Whatever was light and airy about the Mussorgsky was more than paid back by Shostakovich’s first Cello Concerto written in 1959. This thorny work, full of dark dissonance, could be a hard sell to a traditional audience, but for a younger crowd who is listening for the unusual and who is more accustomed to dissonant music from film scores, the piece seemed to be a winner. It is also considered to be one of the hardest pieces for the cello in the literature. It didn’t hurt that 30-year old cellist Julie Albers joined the GSO for a passionate and bold reading of the score, which was dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich. Her playing of the insolent opening passage was full of attitude, and this impertinent attitude remained intact through most of the first-movement Allegretto.

Unfortunately, the audience applauded after this movement, (and after every movement the rest of the evening) thereby breaking the tension that set up the serene and somber second movement. For the record, I am one who is supportive of audiences showing appreciation and enthusiasm for excited playing, even between movements, but it seemed clear that this audience (and not just the young folks) were unaware that symphonic works are designed by the composer to hang together as a unit, without interruption between movements. If one is unsure when to applaud, it is better to err on the side of not clapping rather than making noise.

After the audience interruption, the Moderato’s dark color was established . A moody duet between the solo cello and violas eventually gives way to pizzicatos from the soloist. What promises to be a whimsical passage, complete with an omp-pah accompaniment never takes root. A calming melody from the horn (the only brass instrument in the orchestra), exquisitely played by Robert Campbell, relaxes the tension of the movement’s powerful climax. What follows is an eerie passage reminiscent of Bartók’s “night music.” The cello plays harmonics accompanied by the celesta — wonderful! Albers’ playing was perfectly in tune and ethereal. A solo cadenza follows, which put the spotlight on Albers’ dark melodic playing. The mood is broken three times by a series of mysterious pizzicato chords. Eventually the energy picks up and launches the driving Allegro finale. Brilliant playing from both soloist and orchestra, with special notice given to the important percussion section, marked the entire performance.  Kudos to all.

The final work on the program was the seldom-heard Manfred Symphony in B minor, Tchaikovsky’s only programmatic work in more than one movement. This is a spacious and sprawling four-movement work, lasting more than an hour, and recounts Lord Byron’s poem of the same name. The first movement finds the hero wearily wandering in the Alps. A powerful brass-wind opening provided unusual timbres, several of which the composer would exploit throughout the score. The music sometimes sounds nothing like familiar Tchaikovsky, and then transforms into trademark melodies and orchestration. This movement contains a climax with the loudest music that the composer ever wrote — and the GSO held back nothing.

Felix Mendelssohn is known for his fine orchestral writing depicting fairies and other woodland creatures. But Tchaikovsky certainly places as a close second, as evidenced in the second movement, which paints an Alpine fairy appearing out of a rainbow created by a waterfall. Texture is everything here, with the two harps and winds creating a wonderful sound; the middle section presents the only real melody in the movement. The folksy third movement contains hunting horn calls and a peasant dance. The finale is a hodgepodge; a fugue interrupts a subterranean orgy, the departed lover is represented, and a chorale tune complete with organ (synthesizer) depicts the death of the hero.

To this listener, the programmatic nature of this symphony offered a less-disciplined venue for a composer not known for his expert handling of formal structures. The result is not necessarily a good thing, despite the radiant and enthusiastic playing by the GSO.