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The January 19 concert of the Greensboro Symphony was a profoundly moving journey from the calm cheerfulness of Beethoven in his middle period to the ravages of Shostakovich's experience of World War II. The large audience was rapt and rewarded soloists and orchestra with well-deserved lengthy ovations. Unfortunately, many of the pianissimo moments of the first half of the concert were obscured in the balcony by a rather loud electric buzzing emanating from the lighting booth.
The concert opened with a lightly tripping excursion through Beethoven's Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. Resident conductor Bruce Kiesling chose a middle-of-the-road tempo, avoiding any possible mishaps but also missing the thrill of speed. The choice of this overture was excellent in light of the works yet to come.
Beethoven's Triple Concerto, Op 56, for violin, cello and piano, is a delightful work if somewhat problematic in structure – concertos generally open with an orchestral statement of the themes, followed by the soloist repeating the same themes. But how does a composer handle three soloists? Beethoven was acutely aware of the problem, because the two piano concertos which followed the Triple Concerto have unorthodox openings. (His Fourth Concerto begins with a piano solo and the "Emperor" Concerto begins with chords and arpeggiated cadenzas – as does Brahms' incursion into multiple soloists, the Double Concerto, for violin and cello.)
The soloists – Dmitri Sitkovetsky on violin, Gary Hoffman on cello, and pianist Alexander Paley – played superbly together. Hoffman's tone, warm and sweet, was to die for, even if it was sometimes drowned out by an overly large string section! Paley at the piano was crisp and often seemed to push the tempo forward at the ends of phrases. Apart from a couple of high notes gone awry, Sitkovetsky rose to the exceptional standard he long ago established for himself.
Maestro Kiesling is to be commended for some of the quietest pianissimo passages it has been my pleasure to hear in Greensboro, especially at the start of the development of the first movement. The second movement is one of the most beautiful Beethoven ever penned, its theme first played by the cello and repeated in several variations. Leading trickily into the third movement, the cello gives us a string of "Gs" followed by a delightful theme in three-quarter meter. Numerous cadenzas were the outstanding feature of this Rondo alla polacca (Polish Rondo), and the many sextuplet passages bristled with clarity and precision. The gypsy-like section that must have been the reason for the Polish name was brilliant and followed a long game of musical hide-and-seek, weaving the three soloists in and out of the orchestral fabric.
Shostakovich's rarely-heard Eighth Symphony in c minor is a monster of a piece. Exchanging his violin for a rapier-like baton, Maestro Sitkovetsky fearlessly took the Minotaur by the horns, subdued it, and rode it off into the sunset. The Eighth is the second of Shostakovich's two war symphonies. The first, Symphony No. Seven, celebrates the tenacity of Leningrad and culminates in victory. Not so the Eighth! It is a lugubrious but riveting depiction of the anguish and torture of war. Yet the symphony is one of the most absorbing and interesting works I have heard in many years.
The five movements are grouped in an unusual fashion. The first movement is about as big and long as the rest of the movements combined. It is followed by a short intermezzo. The remaining three movements follow without pauses to create another large movement. The scope of the symphony is grandiose, with huge sections or musical surfaces, reminiscent of Janácek or Sibelius. Strings play in unison or in duet for periods as long as ten minutes, adding perhaps a flute or piccolo to reinforce high notes; then woodwinds creep in, take over, and play their own soliloquy. Each section of the Greensboro Symphony shone, with outstanding performances by the principal players.
Whereas the full string sections had trampled on the soloists earlier in the Beethoven, here I wished for a dozen more cellos and basses to start the Shostakovich. Deep, turbid, even inchoate, the first movement slowly and painfully builds to a lumbering climax before ever assuming the shape one expects of the first movement of a symphony. When finally the allegro begins, with its signature repeated obstinate rhythms, it is almost a relief from the tortured anguish of the extended beginning. Anna Lampidis stood out with her long sinuous English horn solo in this section. Returning to the initial style, the first movement finally fades away after a high note by the solo trumpet – Anita Cirba in this instance.
The second movement embodies a more easily discernable structure, in sharp contrast to the first. After a gorgeous solo by the flutist – Debra Pivetta did the honors in Greensboro – the movement ends abruptly and unexpectedly.
The third movement starts with an upper-string race, a fast-paced perpetual motion punctuated by shrieks and screams from the woodwinds, raucous interruptions from trumpets and snare drums, and bombast from the tympani. Maestro Sitkovetsky was perfectly at home in this movement, with appropriately stabbing and flailing gestures. All this confusion and tension suddenly yields to a string largo, reminiscent of the first movement. Principal horn Bob Campbell shone in a long melancholy solo as did the four flutes with their flutter-tongued accompaniment to the strings' pizzicatos. The orchestra is already into the fifth and final movement before the listener is aware of the transition. Carol Bernstorf's magnificent bassoon solo, followed by an equally haunting oboe solo by Mary Ashley Barrett, hint at a lilting waltz, almost Mephistophelean in nature. A powerful climax in the coda recalls the first movement, as did the aching duet of Concertmaster John Fadial and bass clarinetist James Kalyn. Almost like raindrops over a desolate battlefield, the flutes and xylophone over the bassoon solo bring absolution to the symphony, in what I found to be a very satisfying end to this epic. To paraphrase T. S. Elliot:
This is the way the symphony ends –
Not with a bang, but a whimper....
Note: This program will be broadcast by WFDD-FM on 2/19 - see our Triad calendar for details,