The weather was nasty — rain turning to sleet with several inches of snow predicted, but the music inside War Memorial Auditorium was hot! Despite an understandably small audience and some leaks over the stage (and without intermission), Sitkovetsky and the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra served up an evening of tangy Iberian music by Albéniz, Saint-Saëns, Sarasate and Bizet (arranged by Shchedrin).

Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) is best known for his piano compositions that are strongly influenced by Spanish folk music; interestingly, many of his works transcribed for guitar have become viewed as the quintessential guitar music. But Thursday night’s offering was Two Tangos orchestrated by Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932) in 1996.

The first tango was clearly Spanish-based, with muted trumpet wailing and an elegance that belied the underlying seething passion from the strings. And of course, maracas and tambourine imparting characteristic rhythms. The second tango featured one of the most characteristic Spanish rhythms, the habanera (think Carmen).

The young violinist Yevgeny Kutik joined the GSO for the next two numbers: Havanaise by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) and Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) by Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). Saint-Saéns was a French composer, and like several other Gallic composers such as Bizet, Debussy, and Ravel,  he shared a special fascination and affinity for Spanish music. This work, also based on the habanera rhythm, could easily have been penned by a Spaniard. Sarasate was a native-born Spaniard, and the Zigeunerweisen is a four-part tour de force violin showpiece.

Kutik’s playing showed an elegance and purity that provided an exquisite, silvery tone. Although the sound was not huge, his innate musicality was evident from beginning to end. The two works provided a compendium of violin techniques including slides, harmonics, and special pizzicatos played with a “devil-may-care” attitude. The final section of the Zigeunerweisen could have been mistaken for a Spanish/Appalachian fiddle contest, where the violinist plays as fast as he/she can. Throughout the proceedings Sitkovetsky and Kutik paid close attention to each other, resulting in good ensemble.

The final piece on the program was the Carmen Suite, a multi-movement work for strings and percussion based on the melodies from Bizet’s opera; the composition was written for a one-act ballet in 1967. Sitkovetsky made things personal, explaining his connections with Shchedrin. Not only did Sitkovetsky know the composer and his ballerina wife (for whom the Carmen ballet was written), but also Shchedrin wrote a Concerto for Orchestra for a commission from Sitkovetsky in 1998. Furthermore Sitkovetsky premiered and recorded (with Shchedrin at the keyboard) the composer’s Violin Sonata. Lastly, Sitkovetsky has performed the Carmen Suite several times throughout Europe and the US.

A familiar Carmen tune opens the work on chimes (which gives a bit of an ominous feel) with sustained string accompaniment. Indeed, the score calls for several percussionists who play a total of more than 30 percussion instruments.

All of the great melodies from Carmen appear in the course of the 40-minute work including the habanera, the seguidilla, and the toreador song. The overall effect is a distinct and different “take” on the opera, with several unusual instrumental colors, including xylophone in the habanera and a marimba passage that sounded as if it could have come from the Bahamas (all that was needed were steel drums). 

Although intonation and ensemble were sometimes loose in the strings, the GSO’s playing was colorful and vivid and Sitkovetsky’s direction animated and inspiring.