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To help celebrate Greensboro's bicentennial, the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, led by Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky, commissioned and premiered "The Gift of the Magi," composed by Jakov Jakoulov. The music was inspired by the short story of the same name by Greensboro author O. Henry, although one would be hard pressed to make any sort of connection between the two had they not been presented at the same time.
The story is a poignantly sweet one, in which both the wife and husband sell their most prized possession in order to give each other a worthy gift. The twist, typical of O. Henry's stories, is that each gift was bought specifically for that most prized possession — for her, combs for the hair she had cut and sold, and for him, a chain for his watch, which he had pawned.
The music, however, did little to bring the story into relief, although it was a fun piece of theater. It begins with the conductor silently questioning the second violist as to the whereabouts of the principal violist, who eventually saunters on stage, strumming his instrument, guitar style. But wait — there's more, much more. For example, when Sitkovetsky turns to the audience and blows a whistle, summoning a "chorus" to the stage. During the course of the work, this group of 20 coughs, hacks, wheezes and utters nonsense syllables, presumably to poke fun at the noises audiences typically make. Then there was the harmonica player (was that Bruce Kiesling, the Resident Conductor of the GSO?). And of course the narrator of the story, in this performance, Peter Coyote, whose dramatic sense and clear diction allowed the audience to hear every word.
The work is written for a large orchestra, which played during the proceedings, frequently with one section pitted against another. Much of the music was in a noodling fashion without much shape or direction, and much of it was atonal, although there were bows to several stylistic traits, both classical and popular. But it all served as background to the "action" that was taking place either in the recitation or on the stage. Principal percussionist Wiley Arnold Sykes III added a lot to the event playing a variety of percussion instruments in addition to the trap set.
The evening opened with another work that helped the bicentennial celebration, Beethoven's quirky Fantasia for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra ("Choral Fantasy") with the brilliant pianist Pedja Muzijevic at the keyboard. The work's first performance was in 1808 (the very year Greensboro was founded) with the composer as pianist (who improvised the opening section).
While this work is often viewed as a warm-up for the composer's Ninth Symphony, with its combination of orchestra, soloists and chorus, it also serves as a mini piano concerto, beginning with an improvisatory passage that was flawlessly and seemingly spontaneously played by Muzijevic. Like the Ninth, this piece uses a theme and variations layout that culminates in a boisterous choral climax. One can definitely hear that this tune (based on a song Beethoven had written much earlier) has much in common with the more famous "Ode to Joy" theme. Orchestra, soloists and the Choral Society of Greensboro (under the direction of Bruce Kiesling) turned in a strong reading of the work.
The evening concluded with a splendid performance of Brahms' Fourth Symphony. It seemed clear that both the conductor and the orchestra relish this masterpiece. Muted drama and passion perhaps best describe the character of the four-movement essay, although there are a number of stunning and thrilling climaxes.
Beauty is present everywhere in the score; the gentle two-note motive from the opening lovingly played by strings and winds, the magnificently gentle horn solo of the second movement, and even in the raucous third movement. The brass played marvelously throughout the piece, especially in the finale, which has some of the most exciting passages in the literature. Brahms' last symphony served as a fitting conclusion to the GSO's 2007-08 season.