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ECU’s Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival: A Taste of Classics

by William Thomas Walker

February 22, 2007, Greenville, NC: The Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival is nearly through its seventh season. It was founded by East Carolina University School of Music faculty violinist/violist Ara Gregorian, who maintains an active international touring schedule as well as membership in several chamber music groups such as Concertante. The festival fills a real cultural hunger in Eastern NC and has rapidly outgrown the capacity of A. J. Fletcher Recital Hall. Now concerts are played on Thursday and Saturday and some programs have been taken out of town to the NC School of the Arts and Carnegie Hall in New York City. Each concert represents an intensive residency by visiting international-caliber artists, involving master classes with ECU students and programs in local public schools. Outreach in the community is unusually extensive.

Dmitry Shostakovich admired some of the works by Alexander Arutiunian (b.1920 ). About the Armenian composer's Sinfonietta, the Russian master wrote to the composer “it’s so amazingly pure and lucid. The theme is wonderful…it seems so simple but then it’s so full of creativity and interesting solutions.” Much the same could encapsulate Arutiunian’s Suite (1992) for violin, clarinet, and piano, which was commissioned by the Verdehr Trio. The musicians were violinist Ara Gregorian, ECU faculty clarinetist Christopher Grymes, and guest pianist Adam Neiman. Themes and extended melodies are immediately attractive with unusual and striking rhythmic patterns. Neiman balanced with his colleagues perfectly despite having the piano lid fully raised. He brought out a rich depth in the low notes that open the piece, and he exploited a wide spectrum for the higher treble end. Gregorian and Grymes made the most of the opposing and unison parts of their instrumental dialogs.

Beethoven published two versions of his Opus 16, the original Quintet in E flat for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, and his own arrangementa a Quartet in E flat for piano, violin, viola, and cello. A slow and stately introduction leads into a playfully light allegro. The beautiful slow movement has some of the longest-flowing melodies Beethoven ever penned. The concluding rondo is bursting with high spirits and wit. Neiman’s pianism was flawless as he gauged dynamics with the strings ideally, laying a solid foundation or engaging in the give-and-take of dialog. The Finnish Cultural Foundation has loaned Elina Vähälä a 1678 Stradivarius violin; combined with her immaculate technique, it was the source of tone that had great warmth and refined color. Ani Aznavoorian's cello (made by her father, Peter Aznavoorian of Chicago) sang with an even and rich baritone. Gregorian’s burnished viola sound was as readily projected as usual. The Beethoven benefited from exactly matched dynamics and phrasing when strings played in duet or trio.

Schubert's Quintet in A Major, D.667 ("The Trout"), for piano and strings, is one of the most popular masterpieces of the repertoire. In some 30+ years of attending concerts, I have heard at least one, and often more, performance every season. Its infectious themes and rhythms are irresistible to the most jaded music lover. The ensemble consisted of pianist Neiman, violinist Vähälä, cellist Aznavoorian, violist Gregorian, and NC Symphony Principal Bass Leonid Finkelshteyn. The Four Seasons Festival musicians have Schubert's full measure. Their C Major Cello Quintet last season was one of the finest live performances I had ever heard, and this "Trout Quintet" was at least as good. Neiman's keyboard was a constant delight that sounded so right. Vähälä led with an unusually refined range of dynamics, especially some breath-takingly quiet passages that were precisely matched by her colleagues. The players' phrasing was constantly vital and vibrant, and none of Schubert's repetitions were allowed to sound stale. Bravo!

It was a treat to hear violinist Vähälä again; she was an audience favorite on the Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series, including their 25th Season which was featured in CVNC's first issue. Christopher Grymes was Principal Clarinet of the Winston-Salem Symphony from 1999-2001. Finkelshteyn's basso profundo sound is always welcome. Gregorian's introduction of new artists is always rewarding, and I look forward to hearing the exciting cellist Aznavoorian again. The completion of the segment of Raleigh's 540 beltline to Zebulon ought to make ECU a reasonable trip for Triangle music lovers.

   
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