During the “Meet the Artists” session after the “Bohemian Influences” Masterworks concert of the Greensboro Symphony on January 22, Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky described the Brahms First Piano Concerto as “chamber music on the grand scale.” Without too much of a stretch, the same description could be applied to rest of the program, which featured some seldom heard fare. As we have noted in earlier reviews, the conductor has returned to traditional European orchestral seating, with the two violin sections facing each other across the front of the stage, the violas behind the second violins on the right, and the cellos and double-basses behind the first violins on the left. This arrangement helps to clarify orchestral lines in much of the repertory.

Georges Enesco’s reflective Rumanian Rhapsody No. 2, in D, Op. 11, opened the concert. Unlike the fiery First Rhapsody, most of the second is quiet, featuring slower tempos and lower dynamics. The tight ensemble and quick response of the string sections as they entered in turn at the beginning revealed the influence of Sitkovetsky the violin virtuoso. The sustaining horns and trombones were subtle. The woodwinds were fine, with important solos played by the English horn [Alicia Chapman]. The haunting solo flute of Debra Reuter-Pivetta hovered over the end, preceded by Scott Rawls’ plangent viola, bringing the famous folk dance to vivid life. Elsewhere, repeated melodic material suggested a more “oriental” strain of Rumanian folk music.

The clarity of orchestral detail achieved in the complex, seldom performed Suite from Bela Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin allows the use of the chamber music conceit to describe Sitkovetsky’s direction of the score. Often banned as pornographic, the ballet is set in a room in a brothel where men are lured to be robbed by thieves. Edward Downes, writing in The New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony, calls the plot “a gruesome distortion of the love-death theme that runs through so much nineteenth-century Romantic literature and music,” such as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Strauss’ Salome. The last victim of the thieves and the girl (forced to be the “bait”) is a Mandarin. In a far from politically-correct plot, they decide to murder the victim but, despite repeated attempts, he is kept alive by what Downes calls the “intensity of his longing.” He is able to die only when this is appeased at the end.

Superficially, Bartók’s Suite resembles the Stravinsky style of The Rite of Spring. While acknowledging the composer’s debt to the latter in post-concert comments, Sitkovetsky said Bartók is much more difficult because he changes tempi almost from bar to bar. This makes it hard to apply the rubatos the composer demands throughout a large orchestra, without which the piece would sound quite plain. This was only the fifth performance of the Suite that I can recall in our area within the past two decades, and it was far more successful than the first. Instead of a congested soundstage dominated by rhythm, considerable orchestra detail was always perceptible, at all dynamic levels. The entire orchestra gave its all, and the brass had an especially great night, playing securely an unusual variety of techniques from “pp” and blowing through just the open tube to evoke an eerie breeze to a sassy raspberry. A rhythmic figure for the entire viola section in tight ensemble was also memorable. Kelly Burke’s clarinet portrayed the alluring dance of the girl, while glissandos of muted trombones depicted her overstated “wanton gestures.” Among the woodwinds, the oboist [Cara Fish] had a prominent solo. The War Memorial Auditorium audience gave the Bartók a warm reception. The program notes glossed over the more lurid details of the ballet but space was clearly at a premium.

Pianist Anton Nel and Sitkovetsky managed to do the “impossible,” bringing significant new insight to their collaboration in the well-known war-horse, Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Over several decades, most of the performances heard live or on recordings have emphasized a “heaven storming” quality with thundering octaves contributing to a sense of the monumental. While Nel had more than enough keyboard heft when he needed it, he brought out a tender lyricism in the first movement to a degree that we had never suspected was there. Sitkovetsky provided a carefully balanced, clear and detailed orchestral context that was indeed “like chamber music,” with its give and take between the soloist and the other musicians. The adagio was an example of timeless introspection, while the finale received a more traditional interpretation.

Edited 1/31/04 to include names of English hornist & oboist.