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The performance of violinist Stefani Collins, a Greensboro native, enhanced the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra’s all-American program Thursday night at War Memorial Auditorium. Four works from the 20th century displayed an amazing stylistic array, revealing the deep connections American composers have made in this land of immigrants. Influences ranging from Central America, through African-American culture, to East Coast intellectualism and popular music infused the evening with diversity and excitement. All were united by an optimistic, “can-do” attitude.
Before the music began, however, Greensboro mayor Robbie Perkins addressed the audience to solicit its support for a new performing arts center, currently one of the hot topics of discussion in the city. He explained that the last concert by the GSO was notable because of the snow and rain falling through the ceiling onto the stage; that leak helped convince many people of the need for a new facility.
GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky launched into the evening’s program with Aaron Copland’ El Salon Mexico (1936). The composer visited Mexico in the 1930’s (and the dance hall after which the piece was named) and that experience resulted in this romping pastiche of four folk songs, infused with Copland’s distinctive orchestration, rhythm and wit. The GSO served up the Latin rhythms and melodies with appropriate fire and spice. Lots of instrumental solos helped add color to this fractured narrative in which languid, slow sections contrast with fast ones. A large percussion section helped bring the 10-minute work to its raucous conclusion.
Stefani Collins hails from Greensboro (her mother plays violin in the GSO) and is now working on a Masters at Juilliard. She joined the GSO for a lovely performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1939), now one of the most recorded and performed concertos from the 20th century.
The first two movements are primarily essay on lyricism, while the finale is marked Presto in moto perpetuo (Very fast in perpetual motion). Collins’ tone quality is remarkably pure and beautiful, and she plays with exquisite intonation. She spun out the long lyric lines like slender threads. The GSO’s playing seemed a bit pedantic and square compared to hers, especially in the first movement. Collins’ sensitive playing was sometimes covered by the larger orchestral mass.
The Andante continues the foray into the emotional world established in the first movement, but with even more poignancy. Here the soloist waits throughout the long introduction (featuring solo oboe and clarinet), finally entering over a chord sustained by the orchestra with a long note of intensity that made this listener hold his breath.
The dash of the Finale presto puts both soloist and orchestra on call. The break-neck speed requires the violinist’s fingers to fly up and down the fingerboard for the full four minutes of the movement, with only 30 seconds off for good behavior; a wonderful, exhilarating conclusion to this masterpiece.
The second half of the concert began with the most recently composed work on the program, "The Chairman Dances" adapted from the opera Nixon in China by John Adams (b. 1947). The subtitle for the work is "Foxtrot for Orchestra," and the piece really “dances,” but not in a way that one could realize on the dance floor.
Adams is known for his minimal compositional style, and this piece makes that style readily apparent — repeated melodic riffs and two-chord harmonic progressions are iterated over and over again, but not always in synch, which create a vibrant, syncopated orchestral texture. The GSO, aided by piano, harp, and the work of five percussionists, did a great job of keeping the energy up throughout the 14-minute work.
The evening concluded with George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, a work saturated with popular and jazz influences. The three saxophones and large percussion section attest to the popular flavor.
Gershwin had intended for this tone poem to “portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris,” but the work certainly seems more American than French. Be that as it may, this has become one of the composer’s best-known pieces. The GSO played with energy and soul, although some of the faster sections could have been a bit more upbeat.