The last concert of the NC Symphony’s Summerfest, under the direction of William Henry Curry, wrapped up the series with a magnificent final program of favorite Russian classical music. The famously beautiful and sonorous melodies, Nationalistic and folk elements, and inspired orchestration of some of the most beloved composers of Russia made the night delightful. Valentina Lisitsa’s presence as a guest artist lent an entirely different atmosphere to the last of the Summerfest concerts; her dynamic collaboration with Maestro Curry seemed to bring out the best in both of them.

Mikhail Glinka, “the father of Russian classical music,” was the first composer on the program.  His overture to Ruslan and Ludmila, apparently the Symphony’s favorite Russian showpiece, was lively and rollicking — not that it could really be otherwise, but Curry’s irrepressible energy gave it a little extra pizzazz. The interplay between the different sections of the orchestra was highlighted well, and the different combinations of timbre shone out in spite of the slightly buzzy amplification.

The overture was followed by two contrasting marches.  The first, “Marche miniature” from Suite No. 1 in D minor, Op. 43, was a charming example of Tchaikovsky’s whimsical side.  Its original title, “The March of the Lilliputians,” perhaps gives a better sense of the suddenly transformed Tom Thumb orchestra. The register was uniformly high, but not shrill, the sound small, but not subdued. Contrasting with the miniature march was Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Procession of the “Sardar” from Caucasian Sketches, Op. 10.  Maestro Curry explained that the Sardar (Persian for military commander) did not proceed alone: “You always have to have minions.” The much larger scale of the processional was especially notable in the substitution of the snare and tambourine for Tchaikovsky’s triangle.  Dramatic dynamics, rather un-martial triplets, and the much-repeated final chord gave the piece an exotic Persian flair.

Another work, termed by Curry as the “greatest piece by Tchaikovsky that nobody knows,” demonstrated the Symphony’s polished preparation, especially impressive because most Summerfest performances are preceded by a single rehearsal the morning before the performance. The Theme and Variations from the Suite No. 3 in G, Op. 55, presented a considerable risk. The dozen variations range from almost frenetic to dreamy, presenting challenge after challenge.  The rapid changes in meter, orchestration, and style were negotiated while still leaving room for personal interpretation on the part of the soloists. A haunting, yet warm rendition of the theme for English horn and strings, and a waltz-like variation featuring a solo violin both bore fingerprints of a strong individual touch.

The second half of the program consisted of the beloved Concerto No. 2 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 18, of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  After giving a bit of background (the composer emerged from a lengthy depression through hypnosis to write the wildly successful piece), Maestro Curry tried a bit of his own hypnotic manipulation — leaving the audience with an inexplicable urge to buy season tickets in the fall. Considering the current financial straits of the Symphony, the joke was a bit too serious to be really funny. In the context of the stunning music that followed and would hold the audience in raptures, it was too close to tragic. An organization such as this we cannot afford to lose.

In his novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes “All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.” This philosophy well describes the appeal of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. It is understood not through study, but simply through love. The dark, swirling arpeggios that suddenly dissolve into sparkling, crisp outbursts, the vivacious flamboyancy and private introspection, the harmony that alternately drifts like a falling leaf and flies straight as an arrow towards its target, these are intuitively beautiful. Valentina Lisitsa brought driving power and unutterable tenderness, Mr. Curry tastefully constrained his exuberance with unusual restraint, the result was a brilliant, commanding “Moderato” and “Allegro scherzando.”  However, the second movement, “Adagio sostenuto,” was simply outstanding, with astonishing cohesion, dreamy phrases, and heart-wrenching beauty.

Ms. Lisitsa’s playing has been described as that of a “bona fide angel;” however, this listener believes this is but a half-truth. Yes, a glowing transparency is evident in her tone, but it can hardly be described as cherubic. She plays like an Amazon: a pillar of strength, full of audacity…yet with a tender, human touch. Her approach might seem brazen if it were not so graciously endearing.  Her encore, Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, S. 244/2, showed her delicious sense of comic rubato, daring pedaling, absolute devotion to melody, and virtuosic mastery.