Aycock Auditorium opened in 1927 on the campus of what was then called Woman's College. The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra had its origins when a group of musicians at the college banded together under the direction of Henry Fuchs. After 1951, under conductor George Dickieson, the orchestra grew and eventually became independent from what is now the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Many of those early concerts took place in Aycock Auditorium, so it was appropriate that the first concert by a professional orchestra in the newly renovated hall be given by the GSO.
GSO President and CEO Lisa Crawford recalled this history in prefatory remarks. The presence of Dickieson's widow, Anna Dickieson, and UNCG's new chancellor, Linda P. Brady, honored the orchestra's long ties with the university. Crawford regretted that Aycock Auditorium is completely booked by the university since its acoustics are superior to those of War Memorial Auditorium, the orchestra's home base. (She pleaded for a yes vote on the November Bond issue to fund a similar, complete renovation of War Memorial Auditorium.) Then GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky drew attention to the excitement of hearing the evening's two soloists, one at the beginning of his career and the other, at the height of his. He also praised the wonderful acoustics of the refurbished hall.
Two short orchestral selections gave an ample chance to judge the hall's acoustics. The Overture to La Forza del Destino (1862, revised 1869), by Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901), provides plenty of contrast between dynamics and instrumental timbre. The massed low brass opening seemed a little four-square, but the detailing and warmth of the string sound that followed testified to the auditorium's excellence. String articulation was clear across the dynamic range. Important woodwind solos were beautifully performed by clarinetist Kelly Burke, oboist Mary Ashley Barret, and flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta. A subtle ensemble for trombones and tuba, perfectly phrased, preceded Helen Rifas' fine harp solo.
Sitkovetsky, who was a judge for the UNCG Charles A. Lynam Vocal Competition, recalled being blown away when third place winner René Barbera sang "Ah! Mes amis" from La Fille du Régiment by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). This the first of three classic tenor arias Barbera sang in Aycock Auditorium, and it was immediately clear that here was a major new talent. Without closely mimicking the sound of any famous tenor, Barbera has his own distinctive, warm, and winning timbre. He has even, total control of dynamics from a hushed pp to a literally hall-shaking forte. His voice is evenly supported across its range, and his intonation is outstanding. His ringing high notes were outstanding, especially in this aria with its 11 high C's!! His French diction was impeccable.
The sad melody played by bassoonist Carol Bernstorf and harpist Helen Rifas over pizzicato strings set the mood for "Un furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore. Barbera phrased this with perfectly judged simplicity that was all the more effective because of his restraint.
Sitkovetsky led the orchestra through a splendid performance of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky's wonderful opera Eugene Onegin. The rhythm and dramatic sweep of the great ballroom dance were effectively conjured.
Tenor Barbera added a cynical, self-satisfied facial expression to convey the anti-hero character of the Duke of Mantua as he tossed off ringing highs in "La donna è mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto. The aria's gleaming melodies belie the character's "love'm and leave'm" attitude toward women. The prolonged standing ovation was rewarded by an encore, "Core'ngato" ("Unfaithful Hearts"), a Neapolitan song by Salvatore Cardillo. The orchestral introduction seemed to paint a vista worthy of a Panavision movie, and it gave everyone one more chance to savor Barbera's glorious tone. CVNC reviewed Barbera as Ottario in Donizetti's Belisario (he billed himself as Erich then, not René) and as Arbace in Mozart's Idomeneo in joint NCAS and Fletcher Opera Institute productions in 2005 and 2006 respectively. CVNC's Tim Lindeman also reviewed Barbera in May 2008. His vocal development since his sophomore year until his (current) senior year is astounding!
This concert proceeded from one high to another without an intermission. I have lost count of the number of indifferent and average performances Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 23, that I have heard; only two or three outings over a 30-year period have lingered in my memory. Nothing prepared me for the white-hot intensity of pianist Yefim Bronfman's interpretation, ably supported at every turn by Sitkovetsky and his alert musicians. Bronfman's dynamic range was absolutely breathtaking, from seeming talons of steel powering over the orchestra's tutti to the most delicate filigree spun out in hushed tones. The power and the relentless sweep of the first movement were awe-inspiring and really deserved the unusual standing ovation. The delicate, poetic mood of the second movement stood in complete contrast to the hurricane-like ride of the first. Bronfman's playing was silken and translucent. Important gossamer woodwind solos were played by flutist Reuter-Pivetta and oboist Barret while Acting Principal Brooks Whitehouse delivered the dark-hued cello solo. Bronfman and the orchestra raced neck and neck through the twists and turns of the rondo finale. The grand climax helped tie the concerto together with the stormy first movement. Janet Orenstein, Acting Concertmistress for this concert, and clarinetist Burke contributed important solos.
After many curtain calls by the enthusiastic standing audience, Bronfman chose a strongly contrasted encore, a Sonata in C Minor by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). Like many of the composer's 555 harpsichord sonatas, this one exploits crossed hands and, indeed, almost interlaced fingers. Unlike many such pieces, this one has a slow tempo and rewards the listener with many choice ornamental touches.
My first impression is Aycock Auditorium's acoustics are even better than before. Sight-lines, seat comfort, and leg room are much improved!