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The second concert of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra’s “A Season of Winners” featured the stunning Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio, who was the youngest artist to win the Menuhin International Violin Competition in 1998. The program consisted of two East European composers: Czech Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) and Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
The evening began with the E minor dance from one of Dvořák’s most familiar sets, the Slavonic Dances, penned in 1878. This fun, sectional piece begins with a slow passage that returns several times in the course of the 5-minute work; when a phrase is repeated, it is varied through different instrumentation. The GSO, under Music Director Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s direction, made the most of these changes. Fast sections appear between the slow ones — tambourine, cymbals and brass and contrast, evoking wild merriment — a great way to start the evening off with a splash.
Kamio joined the GSO for a heart-felt and gorgeous reading of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, written in 1879. Nineteenth-century violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim commissioned the work (in part because of the success of the Slavonic Dances), but the violinist was not happy with the score and asked for numerous changes, which Dvořák made. Nonetheless, Joachim was never satisfied, so the composer moved on after several years and another violinist gave the première in 1883. Joachim’s loss!
Part of the reason Joachim was not enthusiastic may have had to do with Dvořák’s insistence at connecting the first two movements in order to emphasize the emotional and melodic connections. Indeed, in Thursday night’s performance, the second movement snuck in almost unnoticeably. One of the memorable moments in the second movement was the great playing by the horns and other brass, aided by solo winds.
Both movements abound in lyricism, a characteristic that Kamio seemed to feel to the depth of her soul. The beauty of the score was made palpable through her sensitive and elegant playing — the GSO mostly matched her subtle phrasing and dynamics. While Kamio’s tone is beautiful and silken, it is not large, and sometimes her voice was lost in the louder orchestral passages.
The third movement features a syncopated, Slavic-infused melody, initially played on double-and triple-stops by the soloist. Several other tunes are heard in this rondo, some a bit more melancholic than the opening, but the movement mostly trips along in joyous abandon.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances were composed just a few years before his death and were originally titled “Fantastic Dances;” indeed, all three are that. For those of us more familiar with the composer’s 2nd Symphony and piano concertos, these wonderful pieces provide a very different view of this composer, who Stravinsky described as "a 6 1/2-foot scowl." To be sure, soaring melodies and heart-felt romanticism are very much in evidence. But so is a quirky, eccentric feel, especially in the composer’s orchestration, which sounds surprisingly modern. Bass clarinet, saxophone, harp, piano, a slew of percussion instruments, and traditional instruments (often in unusual combinations) create a sound that is unexpectedly exciting and new.
The opening “Non allegro” is an A-B-A affair that begins with brilliant descending arpeggios by brass and winds over a joyous, vital, rhythmic background supplied by the orchestra and piano. The middle section features undulating woodwinds with a stunning saxophone solo, superbly played by Steven Stusek. An example of brilliant orchestration: when the opening material returns, percolating winds provide a backdrop to the gorgeous unison string line — breath-taking.
The “Andante con moto” begins with tight brass harmonies interrupted by bubbly winds, and the starting and stopping give the movement a kind of fractured waltz feel. Great playing throughout the orchestra was the mode of the evening, with too many solo passages to innumerate, although Kelly Burke’s fine filigree must be singled out.
The final dance presents several contrasting tempi, from very slow to incredibly lively. Throughout it all, Sitkovetsky seemed especially “on,” changing his direction at the needs of the mercurial score. His conducting was animated and expressive, and the orchestra responded in great style to his urgings.