For Greensboro at least, the heavens seem furiously to proclaim significant debuts of the new Music Director of the Greensboro Symphony, Dmitry Sitkovetsky. For his first concert as music director, the winds of Hurricane Isabel’s remnants whipped around War Memorial Auditorium. Between the bands of Hurricane Ivan’s dissolution and despite the bright red auguries on weather radars, a goodly host filled UNC Greensboro’s Recital Hall September 17 for the first concert of his innovative new series, “Sitkovetsky & Friends.” These concerts will feature the current GSO guest artist, members of the orchestra and, often, the conductor himself.

At first glance, it would be hard to find two more strongly contrasting works by Russian composers than Stravinsky’s acerbic L’histoire du soldat and Tchaikovsky’s lush String Sextet in D Minor, Op. 70 (Souvenir de Florence), but both make extensive use of dance, folk music, or popular idioms.

Between the after effects of the Russian Revolution and the raging of World War I, Stravinsky, an exile in Switzerland, found himself in dire straits with no money from royalties from his music or access to revenues from his family’s Russian estates. His L’histoire du Soldat is a variant on the Faust myth based on Alexander Afanasyev’s tale of a naïve soldier outwitted by the Devil. The original version involved just seven instruments – clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, bass, and percussion – along with a dancer and four speaking parts. With this piece, Stravinsky pared the score down to essentials and developed a new style in melody, rhythm, and instrumentation. Harris Goldsmith records that the composer confessed he learned his “jazz,” an important feature of the work, “from thorough scrutiny of sheet music,” not from making the rounds of clubs. Stravinsky made several arrangements for different combinations of instruments including one for violin, clarinet, and piano (played on this occasion), which was an apt gift for Werner Reinhardt, the amateur clarinetist who paid for the original production. Andrew Willis kept the Kawai piano perfectly balanced while often maintaining motoric rhythms. Kelly Burke had superb control over every aspect of her clarinet, producing a wide palette of timbre, strongly characterized high notes, and a gorgeous and sonorous low range while managing never to cover the violin. And what a luxury it was to have a world-class soloist present – Sitkovetsky himself! The violin part portrays the acerbic sound of a simple soldier’s fiddle, not that of a smooth concert virtuoso. The opening “Soldier’s March” is a stiff parody of militarism. The violin is featured in the second movement, where it is all repetitive driving rhythms, and in the fourth, “Devil’s Dance,” where it conveys diabolic triumph. Sitkovetsky seemed to play effortlessly, whether in the straitjacketed second movement or the gleeful finale. Most delicious was the third movement, in which the three artists turned in a sleazy, low-down tango, a coffeehouse waltz, and a jazzy ragtime session.

The performance of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence was full of delight and joy from beginning to end. I don’t expect to see the two violin positions more strongly manned than here. Elmar Oliveira, who is the first and only American violinist to win the Gold Medal at the Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky Competition, played the first violin part, with its extensive solo role. From the second chair, Sitkovetsky often seemed ready to burst with sheer joy as he beamed at his colleague’s gorgeous lines or as he acknowledged fine solos played by his orchestra members. Principal Violist Scott Rawls was joined by viola section member Maureen Michels*, while Principal Cellist Beth Vanderborgh and new GSO cellist Michael Matthews* rounded out the ensemble. Oliveira’s full and luxuriant tone was a delight when he took a solo line or joined Rawls’ viola or Vanderborgh’s cello. The blend when the two violins combined in tight ensemble was gorgeous. Highlights were the lovely main theme in the second movement and the duets and solos for Oliveira and Vanderborgh, and Rawls’ sonorous playing of the Russian tune that comes to dominate the third movement.

This was a very special evening that seemed to capture the spirit of great artists getting together after a concert and playing chamber music just for fun, as described in the memoirs of Rubinstein and Piatigorsky.

In his introductory remarks, Sitkovetsky mentioned that all the musicians were donating their services this season. This is truly a great gift to the community. At a time when The New York Times is chronicling the labor negotiations of four of the “Big Five” orchestras – where the average base salary is c.$100,000 – this generosity on the parts of guests and local musicians ought not go unheralded – or be taken for granted.

* Updated 9/27/04 : Michels and Matthews are Assistant Principals of the viola and cello sections, respectively.