The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky, greeted the new year with four compositions, each with a connection to Italy and each first performed within a 25 year span. Never mind that the composers were Italian, German, and French and the works themselves were not necessarily premiered in the boot-shaped country. Having a theme helps organize content, no?
The evening began with a crowd-pleaser: the Overture to the French grand opera William Tell (1829) by Gioachino Rossini. What person over a certain age can listen to this music without thinking "Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear — the Lone Ranger rides again." And I suspect that the piece is performed too often for the musicians' taste, but for the audience, it is a treat.
Principal cellist Beth Vanderborgh beautifully offered the opening cello line and the rest of the 10 minutes of music unfolded without a hitch, including a lovely English horn line by Anna Lampidis, the dramatic storm (although the drum was a bit too loud where I was sitting), the galloping horse section, the heralding trumpet calls and the exciting concluding measures.
The Korean-born 20-something violinist Yura Lee joined the GSO for Niccolo Paganini's First Violin Concerto, which was premiered in London in 1818. This is a three-movement work that the composer wrote to display his amazing technical facility; a composition abounding in fireworks, but short on musical substance.
Nonetheless, the concerto served as a tour-de force for Lee, who tossed off the fiendish double stops and harmonics like water off a duck's back with nearly unerring intonation. Indeed she fiddled up a storm without even a hint that she might break into a sweat. The frequent lyric passages sounds like, well, Rossini arias. These too, were performed with exquisite artistry and rich timbre. The orchestra had little more to do than provide a steady yet flexible accompaniment over which Lee performed her magic.
The highlight of the evening was the performance of Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony, subtitled "Italian" because the composer began writing the work while touring Italy (as well as much of Europe) in 1829-31. This is a masterfully constructed four-movement work composed by an artist at the height of his powers. Interestingly, the premiere took place in London with the composer conducting — an instant success.
The GSO's playing of the opening Allegro vivace captured the energy and the sunny disposition of the score to a T. Bubbling winds over which the strings present the main tune begin the lively excursion. The slower second movement depicts a religious pilgrimage and features a plodding bass line that supports a lovely melody.
Horn parts (perfectly played) in the Trio distinguished the third movement (ostensibly a Minuet). The opening string playing at the outset was not as tight as it might have been, but the energy of the playing in the fourth movement (a dance: Saltarello) hardly could be contained. The ebb and flow of dynamics was particularly noteworthy.
The evening concluded with Hector Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture (first performed in Paris in 1843), a colorful, brilliant score calling on the full resources of the orchestra, including four percussionists: a perfect conclusion to an evening of "Italian" music.