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East Carolina University's Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, founded in 2000 by Artistic Director Ara Gregorian, brings together world-class musicians for concerts and also involves them in extensive outreach efforts, master classes for ECU and community students, open rehearsals, and interactive children's concerts. With the demise of music education in the schools, such meaningful exposure to the arts helps nourish future audiences. Many extra seats had to be shoehorned into the intimate A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall at recent concerts, and there is construction in the area, so a new venue had to be found. There was a heartening turnout for an October 28 program, given in the ECU School of Medicine's Brody Auditorium. Despite the distance from campus, there was a large contingent of students of all ages.
A cross-section of some of today's finest string players formed a quintet and a sextet, a juxtaposition seldom encountered. Gregorian took the second violin position for the quintet and was first violinist for the sextet. The major attraction was a chance to hear violinist Elina Vähälä, whom I had reviewed during the several seasons when she was part of Charles Wadsworth's roster for the Spoleto USA chamber music series. She is in the same "drop dead" glamour league as the Eroica Trio and her extraordinary technical facility is – like theirs – combined with a great depth of interpretative insight. She led the quintet and played second fiddle in the sextet. A protégé of the god of violists, William Primrose, Yizhak Schotten played in both works. The former member of the Boston Symphony produced a rich, warm sound that was readily projected by his fine instrument. Two cellists were involved throughout: Sophie Shao was first cellist for the quintet and cellist James Wilson, in the sextet. Violist Jorge Richter joined the ensemble for the sextet.
Over 30 or so years I have heard at least that many performances of my favorite quintet, Schubert's monumental masterwork in C, D.956, for two violins, viola, and two cellos. I have heard coarse readings in which over-heated emotions outran technical finesse. I have heard many good ones that could nonetheless not keep the piece from sounding too long. I have heard a special few that swept up and carried away the listener. This Four Seasons interpretation was one of those – I have never heard a better performance. The tempos and the phrasing were completely convincing – as natural as breathing. String textures were wonderfully clear, separate lines were pellucid, and the pairings were exactly matched. Intonation – including Vähälä's highest notes – was perfectly centered. Schubert uses a lot of repetition, and it takes a special touch to keep the music moving forward and feeling fresh, as was done on this occasion. This work is a feast for cello lovers, and Shao's full warm tone and color were constant delights. Wilson's cello blended beautifully with hers.
Brahms' sunny String Sextet in B-flat, Op. 18, may not probe the depths that Schubert's Quintet does, but it is a joy to hear. It has a wonderful mix of distinctive and engaging melodies and infectious and well sprung rhythms. It is worth hearing for the wide palette of string sonorities alone. Unlike much of late Brahms, this work bursts with the joy of life. The Four Seasons ensemble brought out all these qualities with glowing tones, careful balances, and precise attention to changes of rhythm.
This season has brought a change in venue and an expansion of vision for the festival. While retaining a commitment to "Down East," the artists will venture more widely afield with a visit to Carnegie Hall and a repeat concert in NCSA's Watson Hall in 2006. Further statewide expansion will be explored.