Greensboro Symphony Orchestra Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky described the opening concert of the 2011-12 “Season of Winners” as the start of a voyage for several reasons. To begin with, this first concert, given in the War Memorial Auditorium, featured two sea-faring works: one by Felix Mendelssohn and a world premiere by American violinist/composer Mark O’Connor (who was in attendance, incidentally).  Another reason is that the concert kicked off “17 Days,” North Carolina’s arts and culture festival led by the Guilford County United Arts Council.  A night of high spirits was promised and the music did not disappoint the large audience augmented by the 300 college students in attendance for “College Night”.

Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” was inspired by two of Goethe’s poems; the music easily depicts the two. Indeed the first part of the 10-minute overture contains some of the most static music in the literature, which creates its own treachery since keeping a large ensemble together through slowly moving string lines is no easy task. Yet Sitkovetsky served up the beautiful inundating textures with clarity and control. The upbeat second section of the piece contains lots of jostling sea waves as well as a goodly amount of trumpet and wind fanfares (sighting shore and all, you know). The overture is not one of Mendelssohn’s most inspired works, but worth hearing, nonetheless.

The first of the “Winners” of the GSO season is 20-something pianist Lukas Geniusas who most recently won 2nd prize in 2010 at one of the most prestigious contests in the world: the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.  His performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 was a thrill. Except for the 3-minute orchestral exposition, the work is more like a three-movement piano sonata with orchestral accompaniment, but that suited everyone just fine.

The passionate first movement (Allegro maestoso) contains many stormy passages in which Geniusas engaged fully, but what was most impressive to this listener was the pianist’s exquisite sense of clarity and color. The lyric lines sang clear and strong, and phrases were meticulously shaped, with wonderful rhythmic freedom.

An unerring ear for expressivity, aided by subtle pedaling that helped elucidate the numerous tunes, distinguished the second movement Romance. The final Rondo brings Chopin’s Polish roots to the fore in a mazurka-like dance. Geniusas embraced the flamboyance with style and verve, resulting in an immediate standing ovation, which recalled the pianist to the stage several times before he obliged the appreciative audience with another Chopin, the fiery “Revolutionary” Etude in C Minor. This is a virtuosic work that the pianist took at break-neck speed to the delight of everyone in the hall.

The second half of the concert began with O’Connor’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, which (according to the program notes) “celebrates the current recovery of Blackbeard’s infamous frigate.” A pirate piece! After a short introduction of percussion, a fiddling tune takes hold, conjuring up seafaring sailors. Eventually the rest of orchestra joins the fray, which is occasionally interrupted by the tolling of bells. Textural changes, not melody, give shape to the 7-minute piece. A half dozen percussionists help bring life and energy to the proceedings.

A perennial favorite of audiences, Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”), Op. 36 by Sir Edward Elgar, concluded the evening of music making in good style. The lovely theme and the 14 variations that follow depict some of Elgar’s friends, which Elgar only alluded to by initials in the score.

Nonetheless music sleuths have uncovered all persons involved. Suffice it to say the music contains humor, playfulness, intense beauty, and even a reference to the Mendelssohn that opened the evening. Especially gorgeous was Variation IX (“Nimrod”), an Adagio essay on lyricism. Special kudos to first chair violist Scott Rawls in this variation for his heart-felt playing.

This program will be repeated on 9/24 in Dana Auditorium. For details, see the sidebar.