Ara Gregorian says it didn’t take long to learn that his idea for a chamber music series in Greenville was a success.
“Even in our first year, we generated so much community support that we felt we had a great thing going,” says Gregorian, founder and artistic director of East Carolina University’s Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, which marks its 10th anniversary in the 2009-10 season.
Gregorian started the festival shortly after arriving on the ECU campus in 1998.
“The idea to start the festival was mine, as it has been something that I always wanted to do,” he says. The dean of the ECU Music School at the time, Brad Foley, “let me run with the idea, (which) conceptually has always been to create a festival that had an interaction with the public throughout all four seasons of the year.”
ECU had hosted chamber music performances before, but the idea of a festival for this kind of music represented “the first time that chamber music has been presented consistently throughout the year by one organization, as far as I know,” says Gregorian, a member of the ECU violin-viola faculty. “Now we have become a premier arts organization in the region and the state.”
In the past decade, the festival has grown from five concerts per season to five pairs of concerts per season. Performances take place away from Greenville, including overseas, and the festival includes master classes, open rehearsals and expanded outreach efforts into local schools. New for this season is what is being billed as a “master teachers’ next generation concert,” in which visiting professional musicians team up with faculty, talented students and alumni to perform together.
Typical festival programming concentrates on compositions for strings and piano, occasionally for strings and a wind instrument, usually in trio, quartet and quintet configurations. Gregorian and his colleagues can be found on stage for just about every piece on a program (with occasional exceptions: in January, for example, two pianists performed Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for two pianos).
Gregorian, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Juilliard School and a doctorate from SUNY-Stony Brook, says the repertoire of works for those small ensembles is quite broad and contains many pieces that audiences find appealing. The programming isn’t restricted to trio, quartet and quintet literature, however.
“We tend to focus on the existing popular repertoire, though we look to add diversity when we can. But we think this is what the audience enjoys most,” he says. “And we want to pick from the repertoire pieces that feature our guests as well.”
At the end of the current season, for example, “we will be playing the (Tchaikovsky) Souvenir de Florence and Brahms G-major sextets,” and at a donor appreciation program in late February, performers will present Brahms’ B-flat Sextet, Schoenberg’s ‘Verklarte Nacht’ string sextet, and his own arrangement of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings for sextet."
Past programs have included octets by Mendelssohn, Enesco and Shostakovich; Strauss’ "Metamorphosen" for string septet; and many other sextets. One previous program also included Osvaldo Golijov’s “Last Round” for string nonet.
“The festival has and will continue to perform repertoire of groups of all sizes in the chamber music genre,” Gregorian says. “I try to vary the programming as much as possible to always make for an interesting and exciting program for the audience.”
Not only is the festival popular among audiences, but it also is popular among musicians. Ten years ago, many guest artists “on the rise” came to Greenville to play; now, the festival is so well known that “we are getting calls from artists and managers of artists who want to come here to play. This shows that we are developing a national and international reputation,” Gregorian says.
The continuing popularity of the festival could bring about other changes in the future — increasing the number of performances of each program from two to three, or perhaps adding a sixth pair of concerts. “It’s a problem we hope to have, but we have to try to run this as a business, too, to solidify and grow what we are doing,” he says.
Marking a 10th anniversary “is a thrill for me, something to be proud of, but we also are so grateful to so many people for the success,” he says. “This succeeds because of the tremendous amount of community support, and now we are really well established. We are operating from a point of solidity.
“This is as exciting now as it was in the first season,” Gregorian says. “I would love to continue being involved in this as long as I can. This is my baby, and I love presenting great repertoire and bringing great musicians in to perform.”
Note: The next concerts in this series will be presented on October 29-30 in Greenville. See our calendar for details.