Dmitry Sitkovetsky celebrated his birthday Thursday night. The world-renowned violinist and Music Director of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra marked the occasion in high style, both as soloist and as conductor. The evening began with a performance of Brahms’ mighty Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77, the very same work that kicked off Sitkovetsky’s international career when he won the Fritz Kreisler International Violin Competition in Vienna 33 years ago.
How many times has Sitkovetsky played this work? Certainly dozens; yet, he infused the entire work with life and beauty, finding hidden treasures at every melodic turn. Perfect intonation, marvelous technique that made the double- and triple-stops (especially in the first movement cadenza) seem like child’s play, and exquisite delicate playing created an especially memorable performance.
The opening Allegro non troppo was taken at a majestic pace, which allowed the drama to gently unfold. Nathaniel Beversluis, Resident Conductor of the GSO, was on the podium; Sitkovetsky was clearly in control of his magnificent playing and through his interaction with Beversluis, he helped steer some of the orchestral playing. On sustained chords, for example, the violinist would push the tempo forward, only to relax the pace a bit later. He and Beversluis may have been goading each other a bit. The end result was music making at its very finest.
The slow movement was sustained lyricism (and featured some wonderful oboe playing by Mary Ashley Barret), and the finale joyously brought the work to its gypsy-infused conclusion. I felt that the tempos of the first and last movements could have been just a tad faster, which would have added a bit more energy and excitement to the proceedings. The orchestra was attentive to Beversluis’ direction, and ensemble between the soloist and orchestra was first-rate. Special kudos go to the brass section, which played like a million bucks.
The standing ovation that followed was entirely fitting, and the orchestra responded with a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Sitkovetsky; the audience joined in the fun.
The second half of the birthday party/concert featured what Sitkovetsky described as “lighter” Viennese fare. As he explained from the podium (now with baton instead of violin), the less-serious music of the Strausses (which Brahms admired) was enjoyed by the Viennese public as much as the “art” music of Brahms; that schism would come later.
With that introduction, Sitkovetsky launched into the Overture to Die Fledermaus, the most famous operetta by Johann Jr., the “waltz king.” The GSO did not lack any energy in this performance, which contains one infectious tune after another.
Two of Brahms’ lively Hungarian Dances brought back gypsy flair, and Sitkovetsky made the most of the contrasts between the fast and slow sections. Don’t most of us know this music from Looney tunes? Regardless, the melodies had the audience smiling and humming.
Two polkas followed, one by Johann Strauss, Jr., the other by his uncle, Josef. “Long Live the Hungarians” featured an active percussion section including snare drum and tambourine. The “Without A Care” polka featured shenanigans, with the orchestra members shouting “Ha-Ha-Ha” on occasion, and Sitkovetsky ducking as a loud stroke from the bass drum was heard. The audience loved it.
Johann’s "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" Waltz contains some of the most famous music in the western world (again, I could hear several audience members humming along). The horn section’s gentle introduction was flawlessly played, and the essential harp sounds were delicately offered by Helen Rifas. Conductor and orchestra immersed themselves in the score’s lilting rhythms.
The concluding “Radetzkey” March by Johann Strauss, Sr. demanded audience participation in the form of clapping (soft and loud, egged on by Sitkovetsky) in appropriate passages. Happy Birthday, Dima! And thanks!