Ara Gregorian, artistic director of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, tried something new this season. Why not invite a guest performer to come in and work with East Carolina University music students, and then let them join the guest and some ECU faculty members for a concert of chamber music? Oh, and maybe invite a recent graduate back to Greenville and join the performance.
In baseball terms, Gregorian is batting 1,000.
The second of two “Next Generation” concerts drew an appreciative audience to Fletcher Recital Hall for a program that spanned the mid-19th century to early 20th century, and the faculty, students, guest performer and graduate played with considerable skill and energy as they presented an afternoon of top-level music-making.
The guest performer was pianist Robert McDonald, a member of the Curtis Institute and Juilliard School faculty who has played in previous Four Seasons programs, and the graduate was violist Meredith Harris, who went from studying with Gregorian at ECU to Rice University to earn a master’s degree in viola performance. She also is a founding member of the Lechuza String Quartet, formed by young women at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music.
The program offered wonderful variety, from a portion of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, to a piano-four-hands reading of Debussy’s “Petit Suite” to a blustery, vigorous Prelude and Scherzo, Op. 11, by Shostakovich.
Although composed early in Shostakovich’s career, the Prelude and Scherzo looked forward instead of backward in its musical sound, with some almost other-worldly harmonies more than an octave apart, and some harsh passages requiring vigorous (almost frenetic) playing by the eight musicians. The Prelude had moments of quiet introspection, with Gregorian, playing lead violin, balanced nicely by a somber cello line, and ECU faculty member Melissa Reardon on viola with several well-played leads. The Scherzo featured nice interplay between faculty member Emanuel Gruber on cello and student cellist Cameron Grimes — while one bowed, the other plucked. Student violinists Caroline Cox, Elizabeth Upson and Christopher Ferrara, and Harris on viola, got quite a workout in this movement, yet everyone kept up with the musical and tempo demands of the score, which included an extended passage resembling a near-cacophonous wail of banshees.
As in the November “Next Generation” program, the concert included a lovely movement from a Brahms string sextet, this time the opening allegro non troppo movement from the Sextet No. 2 in G, Op. 36, and Gregorian, Reardon and Gruber were joined by Harris on viola, Ferrara on violin and Hillary Flowers on cello. From the opening phrases by Reardon, her bow rocking gently across the strings, to the weightier sound of the two cellists, the movement pulsed with a beauty and a sweetness that often seemed lighter than many of Brahms’ other compositions.
Equally lovely was the fourth allegro brillante movement from Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, in which Ferraro and Harris joined McDonald, Gregorian and Gruber. This movement, which features several nice (though brief) duets between cello and viola, has a heroic sound near the end, along with some nice exposed lines for the string players. McDonald provided a fine foundation, too.
McDonald and ECU faculty member Keiko Sekino joined together for a wonderful interpretation of the “Petit Suite” by Debussy. The “En bateau” section that opens the piece, perhaps one of Debussy’s most familiar melodies, was played with a sense of the sea, with Sekino playing the melody in the upper register, and McDonald offering the sound of waves gently lapping against the boat in the lower register. The second “Cortege" section actually sounded more dance-like than the third “Menuet” section, and the two performers infused the “Ballet” finale with a sense of whirling about as the melody shifted from one player to the other. One impression of this work is that adding a second pair of hands removed some of the ethereal quality of Debussy’s compositions, replacing it with a bit more substance.
A real highlight of the program was the opening allegro movement of Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Piano Quintet in C minor, his first composition, written as a teenager. Filled with wonderful melodic passages and interesting scoring, this is not likely high atop anyone’s list of well known chamber pieces, but it deserves to be. McDonald, Gregorian and Reardon were joined by Cox on violin and Flowers on cello, and they played beautifully. As in the Schumann, this piece comes to a robust, near-heroic close.
To close the program, the “heavy hitters” — McDonald, Gregorian, Reardon and Gruber — threw themselves into Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60, and the passionate performance reminds one that when chamber musicians are on, great things happen. From the tense opening of the allegro ma non troppo movement, built on a single piano chord and somber strings in reply, followed by the lovely and delicate melody traded between piano and strings, to the fully energized second scherzo movement, Brahms presents a colorful variety of dynamics and musical sounds. And then comes the gorgeous andante, led by McDonald and Gruber in an extended duet, and richly satisfying final allegro movement. Nice dialog passages were shared by Gregorian and Gruber and by Reardon and Gruber, and Gregorian and McDonald began the finale with great skill and energy. McDonald’s piano was dominant throughout the entire piece (at times, the piece sounded like a piano concerto, scaled down in size), and he played with consummate skill and artistry, whether in solo passages or against duets and trios in the strings.