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The Thursday, May 5, Greensboro Symphony concert, featuring an outstanding piano soloist and a well-prepared Mahler symphony, was a musical memory to cherish and a fitting finale to the 2004-05 season.
The concert opened with a straightforward rendition of Mozart's Overture to Don Giovanni. The overture starts with music from the climactic Fourth Act of the opera, in which the statue of the Commandant emerges from the underworld to invite Don Giovanni, his murderer, to dinner. After this spooky introduction, replete with overlong bass notes, chromatic harmonies and complicated (and awkward) cross-rhythms and syncopations, Maestro Dmitry Sitkovetsky led the orchestra in the cheerfully clean and rhythmic allegro that ushers in the celebrated story of flirtation and seduction. The string section sounded clean and well-rehearsed in the tricky passagework that abounds in the overture.
The extraordinary pianist was Madame Bella Davidovich, who had been originally scheduled earlier in the season, and the concerto she championed was Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, in f minor. Despite its name, this is actually the first concerto Chopin wrote, at the tender age of 19, a romantic work from the opening string tutti to the closing waltz (or Mazurka).
The orchestra's exposition, in which the two themes of the movement are stated, was fast and rather straight-laced, a far cry from what Mme. Davidovich soon gave us in her version of the same themes – tender, lingering romance, liberally interwoven with the lacy filigree of runs and arpeggios that are typical of the idiom Chopin invented. And yet Mme. Davidovich certainly doesn't lack strength, as she powered herself through the quasi-recitative of the otherwise wistful and plaintive second movement. The soft moments of this movement were arresting and captivating as the warm and clear notes of the bassoon, played by Carol Bernstorf, answered the piano dialogue. Unfortunately, the unforgiving acoustics of War Memorial Auditorium didn't allow the orchestra to match the pianissimos of the soloist – rather than rich and soft, these passages sounded thin and airy.
The finale of the concerto, with its blustery first theme, really came to life in the alternating slow sections: waltzes of exquisite simplicity, beautifully performed by Mme. Davidovich. A fetching horn call, subtly played by GSO principal horn, Robert Campbell, ushered in an almost carnaval-esque section, which led to the brilliant closing coda. The large audience gave a standing ovation to the soloist and orchestra but let the applause die out after the second curtain call. I would dearly have loved to hear a short encore!
The faulty acoustics were again evident in the second half of the concert, even though I moved up to the balcony, which usually has the best acoustics in most halls. An orchestra can only sound as good as the hall it performs in, so the first condition for great sound is a great hall. War Memorial Auditorium, with its very wide stage, is not a great hall! Sections of the orchestra don't blend together, even though the excellent musicians of the Greensboro Symphony try hard. Horns will always stand out (perhaps the back wall is too near the musicians) even in the softest passages, and high pitches are lost while the lower instruments tend to boom out.
Mahler's First Symphony, in D ("The Titan"), is perhaps the most familiar of his 9+ symphonies, and it is always a pleasure to hear. From the rarified opening, with its high-pitched string harmonics, to the schmaltzy Klezmer-like oboe duets, and from the sadly minor Frère Jacques bass solo (expressively played by John Spuller) to the loud and flashy horn glissandi, this symphony runs the gamut of emotions as well as orchestral gestures. Among the many outstanding solos were the delicate trumpetry of Anita Cirba, the plaintive expressivity of oboist Alicia Chapman, and the sassy cuckoo of clarinetist Kelly Burke. The enlarged horn section played with outstanding accuracy and warmth, as did the 49-piece string section. And Maestro Sitkovetsky led the entire orchestra with clarity and energy.
Odds & Sods
On Friday, April 16, I was privileged to hear the best performance of the NCSA orchestra I have heard in recent years. Maestro Serge Zehnacker led the huge orchestra of students (and a handful of alumni) through Mahler's Ninth Symphony, the only work on the program. Zehnacker's straightforward and somewhat prosaic technique served him especially well in the tricky ensemble work of the slow finale of the symphony, where even polished professional orchestras have been known to fall apart. Bravo!
Mahler is known to have predicted that his time would come, and indeed, during the years Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic – and until half a dozen years ago –Mahler's time did arrive. Unfortunately, when National Public Radio introduced the five-minute news break every hour on the hour, Mahler's (and Bruckner's) time was up. And of course now, with no Triad stations playing classical music except during the night, Classical Music's time may have passed, too.