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What do Greensboro Symphony Orchestra Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky, cellist Sergey Antonov and Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky all have in common? They were all born in Russia, of course, and Thursday night’s all-Russian program provided fertile soil for some spectacular music making by the GSO.
Young Prokofiev may have been known for his ferociously dissonant works, but his first venture into the symphonic form clearly shows the influence of Haydn and Mozart. The composer himself called the work the “Classical” symphony. The modestly dimensioned four-movement work is cast in a fast-slow-dance-lively arrangement, an order that certainly would have won Haydn’s approval. Rhythmic vitality and cute turns of phrases characterize the entire work. Even though the opening of a couple of the movements was a little sloppy, the ensemble finally gelled and displayed good control of a wide range of dynamics. Good humor abounded — again Haydn would have been delighted.
Sergey Antonov comes with praises from none other than Mstislav Rostropovich; furthermore, he was one of the youngest cellists to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition. It seemed perfectly fitting, then, that he would perform two of that composer’s works for cello: Pezzo Capriccioso in B minor, Op. 62 and the Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33.
Pezzo Capriccioso is, despite its title (roughly translated as “free and lively piece”), primarily a somber work, with a dramatic entrance by the cello that turns into a heart-rending poignant melody, repeated several times in the course of the 8-minute work. Antonov immediately captured the audience’s attention with his flair for drama and his superb musicianship.
The “Rococo” Variations is a more substantial work: an original theme followed by seven variations. This showpiece for the cello allowed for Antonov to further demonstrate his abilities. How many superlatives can one heap on his playing? His melodic lines revealed wonderful shading and color; his passionate playing was facilitated by unerring nimble fingers. To top it all off add impeccable intonation. Later, Sitkovetsky told the audience that this performance was second only to when, as concertmaster of the orchestra at the Moscow Conservatory, he accompanied Rostropovich.
Sitkovetsky, in his talk to the audience after intermission, made the point that indeed all of the composers were Russian, but both Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky (like Sitkovetsky himself) lived in the US more than in the USSR. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” was originally written for voice and piano; it has been subsequently transcribed for various instrumental combinations, including the one arranged for orchestra by the composer (Op. 34, No. 14). This is a gorgeous, lyric composition, and the GSO played with appropriate melancholic fervor.
Stravinsky’s first big hit was his Firebird ballet, which premiered in Paris in 1910. The brilliant score reveals the composer’s indebtedness to Rimsky-Korsakov, one of his teachers, who is also known for his colorful orchestration. Stravinsky toyed with the score throughout his life, but the 1919 suite became the most popular, and that’s the 5-section version the GSO performed.
The opening “Enchanted Garden” presents an amorphous music canvas onto which various wind solos appear and disappear. The magic bird is depicted frequently by frenetic winds. The “Infernal Dance,” with its dramatic drum exclamations, contained some of the loudest music heard during the evening. And by contrast, the “Lullaby” contained the gentlest and softest playing I have ever heard from the GSO. The Finale is a tour-de-force of dynamic orchestration.
Many solo performers distinguished themselves — harp, percussionists, winds, and brass — but two need special kudos: Robert Campbell’s stunning horn solo at the outset of the Finale, and Beth Vanderborgh’s beautiful cello solo work throughout. Sitkovetsky’s conducting was inspired, giving shape to the overlapping and layered textures and making Stravinsky’s rhythmically complex score come alive.