University of North Carolina Greensboro Symphony Orchestra music director Kevin Geraldi chose a program of three rarities as appetizers for a repertoire masterpiece. The menu was spiced by the podium duties being shared with Ming Liu, principal conductor of the Shenzhen Symphony and director of orchestral activities at the Xinghai Conservatory in China. This was part of an exchange program that began with Geraldi’s stint there in May. Liu has guest conducted extensively in America and internationally.

The concert opened with the Overture to the comic opera Maskarade (1905) by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). The short overture features two melodies, a fast-paced one beginning in the strings and a slower one featuring flutes. Liu led the opening and closing selections and his careful preparation was evident from tight ensemble of the strings at the bustling beginning to the wonderful entry of the horn section, perfectly matched. The massed winds later on perfectly captured Nielsen’s signature sound such as is heard in the middle symphonies. The playful slower melody was given a chamber music like delicacy with fine contributions from the flutes.

A real rarity came next. Lia’s aria “Azaël! Azaël! Pourquoi m’as-tu quitté” from L’Enfant Prodigue (1905) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). For his third attempt at the Prix de Rome, Debussy was advised by his teacher, Ernest Guiraud, to reign in his originally in favor of a more conservative style like that of Delibes and Massenet. The cantata is based upon the biblical story of the Prodigal Son. In the aria, the mother laments the passing of time and her loss of her son Azaël.

The superb soprano soloist was Lilla Keith, the student artist competition winner. The Spartanburg, SC, native is currently pursuing her master of music degree in vocal performance at UNCG, studying with Carla LeFevre. She has already racked up an impressive resume of professional performances, debuting in Hansel and Gretel with the Greensboro Opera. Keith has a powerful, well-supported voice with a fine, warm timbre. Her diction as well as her expressive control of dynamics were superb. Geraldi provided a carefully tailored accompaniment, ideally balanced with his soloist. It was a treat to hear Debussy’s orchestration that only had occasional flashes of his future style.

With the dominance of the HIP (historically involved performance) movement in music, the once popular art of transcription has nearly vanished from orchestra programs. Geraldi selected a gem, the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, S.537 (1723), by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), in a transcription by Sir Edward Elgar. (Elgar had planned to do only the Fantasia with the Fugue to be done by Richard Strauss, who failed to do it.) The Fugue alone was premiered October 27, 1921 while the Fantasy had to wait until September 7, 1922. Elgar wrote, inimitably, to Ernest Newman: “I have kept it quite solid (diapasony) at first – later you hear the sesquialteras & other trimming stops reverberating & the resultant vibrating shimmering sort of organ sound” (October 26, 1921).

Geraldi led a very well-prepared performance of Elgar’s sumptuous but tasteful score. What a contrast to some of the lurid Bach transcriptions of Leopold Stokowski! Elgar is faithful to Bach’s musical lines, and Geraldi controlled them masterfully. It opened with the organ pedal created by a steady pulse from alternate timpani and bass drum over the undulation of muted violas and cellos, underpinned by long-drawn double basses culminating with a pair of muted horns. In the Fugue, Geraldi unleashed a tour de force that ranged from cymbal crashes, harp glissandos, to upper woodwind scales. Strings played with a rich tone, woodwinds were colorful, and brass were radiant.

The concert was capped by a very accomplished and fiery performance of Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 (1902) by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Sibelius reverses the standard Classical approach: exposition of themes, their development, and recapitulation. He uses thematic fragments or nuclei that fuse together and evolve into complete structures. Liu led a firmly controlled performance, slowly building up the tension and romantic sweep into a glorious, radiant apotheosis. The detailing of the string sections was consistently amazing. What a deep, rich sepulchral resonance the double basses and cellos made in the pizzicato opening of the second movement! Liu maximized the impact of the “big tune” at the seamless transition between the fast paced scherzo and the leading into the climatic finale. Among the many first rate solos were those by the clarinetist, the oboist, the flutist, the tubist, and the principal horn with some heroic timpani playing. This was a deeply satisfying performance.