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WFU's Secrest Series: En famille Under the Tuscan Sun

by William Thomas Walker

On April 16, multiple extra-musical connections brought a broad audience together in Wait Chapel on the bucolic campus of Wake Forest University. Promoting the third season of the Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, Italy, its resident orchestra, the New European Strings Chamber Orchestra, played a program that focused on the region. The Artistic Director of the festival, cellist Nina Kotova, was featured in the double role of composer and soloist. The author of the best-seller Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes, read selections from her book that Kotova used to complement her music. Conducting the forces was Dmitri Sitkovetsky, who is also Music Director of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra. While the members of the NES Chamber Orchestra are drawn from all over the world, I could not help noticing the presence of three Sitkovetsky relatives – Uncle Vitaly, a violist, "cousin" Alexander (Sasha), a rising violinist, and Sasha's mother and sometime accompanist, Olga, harpsichord. There were also two GSO violinists – Fabrice Dharamraj and Nicolae Soare. Applause between the movements reflected lots of newcomers.

As a surprise for his Greensboro visitors in the audience, Sitkovetsky substituted the Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, S.1043, by J. S. Bach, for two short Shostakovich pieces (one of which wound up being played as an encore). While directing the orchestra, Dmitri played the second violin part while Sasha left his second stand position in the first violins to play the first violin part. This was no dry "early-music" performance but one that made passionate use of the full resources of modern instruments, augmented by tasteful but Romantic vibrato. Both played superbly, and there was a pleasing difference between the parts enhanced by the unique tone of each player. Unfortunately Leo Weiner's splendid Divertimento, Op. 20, was not played.

The Tuscan Sun Festival came about because cellist/composer Kotova is a neighbor of author Mayes. Together they conceived and organized an intimate music festival based in the Tuscan hill town of Cortona.. Kotova's dual talents are well known from the recording of her first Cello Concerto (2000). To promote the festival she composed a second Cello Concerto, in C, called "The Tuscan" (2005). In her program note, Kotova writes that "The idea of writing the 'Tuscan' [C]oncerto came to me after experiencing the fascination and beauty of Tuscany and, in particular, the special light that seems to surround it." Each of the three movements was preceded by Mayes' reading of selections from her book. During the reading and the performance, Steven Rothfeld's Tuscan photography was projected on a large screen above the orchestra. The mixing of spoken word and music can be the kiss of death for both, but used "to set the mood" as a "prelude" to the music's movements, it did no harm. Kotova the composer gave Kotova the cellist no slack. The music is tonal with idiomatic scoring for strings and some breathtaking writing for the soloist including a wide catalog of different pizzicatos, fast high exposed notes, tricky harmonics, etc. From front row center, her flawless intonation and smooth, seemingly effortless control were believable only because they were seen as well as heard. This fine concerto can stand alone on its musical quality. Kotova plays the 1696 Guarneri "Bear" cello that once belonged to Jacqueline DuPré and, later, Lynn Harrell.

A program from the Mediterranean world without either Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70, would be hard to imagine. With so many Russians on hand, Wait Chapel got the latter, given in Dmitri Sitkovetsky's own arrangement of the string sextet for string orchestra. I much prefer the original sextet version, feeling that it already sounds "orchestral" in places but Sitkovetsky's version steers clear of sounding too plush while preserving the clarity of lines. The slow movement, with terrific and expressive playing from Concertmaster Sreten Kristic and Principal Cellist Boris Baraz, was outstanding. The players of the NES Chamber Orchestra are crack musicians, but the warmth of their collegiality and spirit will linger in memory – as will the players' obvious pleasure as their colleagues soared during the solos.

The encores were the Scherzo from Shostakovich's Op. 11 pair and Rachmaninov's "Vocalise," arr. Sitkovetksy.

The Tuscan Sun Festival ran a full-court press in marketing. A contest featuring a major American automobile manufacturer was featured in the posters, and three tables were set up in the lobby, one with the musicians' latest recordings and the others with all of Mayes' latest books and her own estate-bottled olive oil. Kotova and Mayes were available at intermission and after the concert to autograph purchases, and business was brisk.

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