For the first “Next Generation” concert of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival’s 2011-12 season, East Carolina University string faculty members and students, joined by a guest performer and a string program alumnus, served up a hearty dish of six selections, some familiar and some not so. The mood at the beginning of the program was relatively bright (exemplified by the scherzo presto movement from Schubert’s “Trout” quintet for piano and strings), but the program ended on a somber note with an intense reading of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C-minor, Op. 110, performed by more than 30 players in a string orchestra version.
The guest performer for this concert was violist Nicholas Cords, a regular member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and also a soloist and chamber ensemble musician. The alumnus was cellist Christopher Nunnally of Greenville, who has a law degree and is a recent addition to the faculty of a Greenville area private school. The concert also included new string faculty member Hye-Jin Kim, a violinist who has played with both the Guarneri and Juilliard quartets.
The first part of the program focused mainly on melody, ranging from the allegro movement of Mozart’s String Quartet in C-minor, K. 406/516B and the section of the Schubert Piano Quintet to the allegro moderato movement from a string sextet by Frank Bridge and the allegro movement from Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Piano Quintet in C-minor, Op. 1.
The Mozart allegro opens with a bold seven-note unison passage, which is repeated twice by all players and twice in understated playing by the cello. The blend of strings was lovely throughout, with Ms. Kim and student Caroline Cox on violins, Cords and faculty member Melissa Reardon on violas and student Cameron Collins on cello. Three students joined in the first movement of the Bridge string sextet, which dates from the first dozen years of the 20th century. Violinist Leonardo Perez, violist Andrew Minguez and cellist Cameron Grimes teamed up well with festival artistic director Ara Gregorian on violin, Cords on viola and ECU faculty member Emanuel Gruber on cello. This is a lovely work that moves from an emotional beginning to a buildup in intensity before tapering off. Especially nice were the quartet sections featuring violins and violas and the solo lines by Gregorian and Cords.
Faculty member Keiko Sekino provided the lively (and familiar) piano line for the Schubert quintet, in which student Elizabeth Upson joined on viola. Leonid Finkelshteyn, the ECU faculty member who recently played Serge Koussevitzky’s concerto for double bass with the ECU Symphony, provided steady and sturdy resonance throughout this jolly piece.
The allegro movement from Von Dohnanyi piano quintet, a work played in its entirety during last season’s Four Seasons series, included student Janice Lee on violin and was quite well played. Nunnally had an especially nice cello line, and it was interesting to see the intensity of his expression as he added drama and depth to the performance. Ms. Sekino again had lovely piano lines, from the opening phrases to the final statement played with cello and first violin.
The second part of the program carried considerably more weight. Gregorian and Ms. Kim on violin, Reardon and Cords on viola, and Gruber and Nunnally on cello offered a fine reading of the first and second movements of Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G, Op. 36, which was last played in April 2010. From the sweeping opening to the exuberant dance-like portions in the scherzo-allegro non troppo-presto giocoso, this was a full, rich and extremely satisfying performance, highlighted in part by the variety of string techniques in the score.
Some might complain that the concert ended on too much of a downer, but the string orchestra version of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C-minor, Op. 110, was quite satisfying in its own way. Gregorian noted at the outset of the program that the piece was dark, and he could have added “intense” to that description as well. Written in 1960, the piece contains some elements of the composer’s previous works and was said to be a dedication to victims of fascism and war, and possibly his own epitaph. The piece contains five movements, played without noticeable pause, and only a few portions of the movements departed from the overall melancholy feeling. One part of the allegretto, for instance, resembled a waltz danced by drunkards, and another section featured a violin duet, joined by cello, that sounded like bees buzzing. Not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but an interesting composition nonetheless. And in the absence of a conductor, the two dozen students who joined the faculty members, guest and alumnus performed with great skill, executing the musical and timing demands of the score well.