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Music Director Dmitri Sitkovetsky knows how to combine unjustly neglected works with standard repertoire to make a well-balanced program. This Greensboro Symphony concert, in War Memorial Auditorium, was typical, with a rarely-played orchestral work by a French opera composer, a fine, neglected Romantic Russian violin concerto, Beethoven's sprightly Fourth Symphony, all finished off with Brahms in his most laid-back mood.
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) is best known for having composed almost 30 operas. Manon (my favorite) is staged most often, while the solo violin "Meditation" from Thaïs turns up on recitals or as an encore. Symphonic structure did not suit Massenet's genius, but his orchestral mastery is evident in his numerous suites. Scènes alsaciennes (Suite No. 7) is unusual in having a narrative sequence implied over its four movements. "Sunday Morning" opened with the bucolic "piping" between Kelly Burke's clarinet and Debra Reuter-Pivetta's flute, soon joined by a drone-like sound from the strings. A vigorous rhythm set by timpanist Peter Zlotnick opened "At the Tavern"; it was soon taken up by the woodwinds and horns. "Under the Linden Trees" was lovely, with Robert Campbell's memorable chorale-like horn solo. Cellist Beth Vanderborgh's lyrical, soulful solo was followed by her mellow duet with Burke's clarinet. Distant church bells were suggested by pp tubular bells. "Sunday Evening" was rambunctious, with plangent brass and interesting pairings and contrasts between sections. The changing of the guard was brilliantly suggested by Anita Cirba's off-stage trumpet, accompanied by a snare drum. Dwindling dynamics portrayed the troops' march into the distance. Section ensemble in every movement was tight, with crisp attacks and releases. Sitkovetsky "painted" these Scènes with a refined palette.
The Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82, of Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936), was a welcome change of pace from the usual fare of either the Mendelssohn or a Bruch concerto played by rising prize-winning virtuosos. Its three movements, played without interruption, are filled with rhapsodic bursts of melody, sensuous harmonies, and technical fireworks. Twenty-four-year-old Augustin Hadelich, gold medalist of the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, played with complete confidence as he produced a warm, full-string tone. His bowing was breathtaking, as were his precisely-pitched high notes. Musicianship of this level holds the promise of a fine future. The enthusiastic audience response was rewarded by Hadelich's agile dash through the pitfalls of the Caprice in E, Op. 1/9, of Paganini.
Beethoven's even-numbered symphonies are sometimes underappreciated, so Sitkovetsky's masterful interpretation of Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60, was most welcome. Every section of the orchestra gave alert, edge-of-the seat performances with the give-and-take clarity of chamber music. Sitkovetsky's view was mainstream classical, and his every action drew the listener into the piece. He used his baton in the faster first, third, and fourth movements. The magical transition between the slow-paced introduction to the vigorous "allegro vivace" was brought off beautifully. The highlight of the symphony was the second movement, where Sitkovetsky laid down his baton and wove the phrasing of the long melodies with subtle hand and finger gestures worthy of Stokowski. The important, strongly-characterized pair of bassoon parts was led by Carol Bernstorf.
Three Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) served as a rich Viennese dessert for the audience. Dances Nos. 1 in G minor, 6 in D-flat, and 5 in F-sharp minor were played, and there was plenty of contrast between fast and slow, ebullient and rhapsodic. Sitkovetsky's application of rubato was subtle and stylish as each slowing down and speeding up seemed improvised.