Since Inessa Zaretsky became the director of the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival, I have eagerly anticipated each year’s five-week summer festival. In addition to being a fine collaborative pianist and an interesting composer, Zaretsky schedules innovative programs and entices fine musicians to come to the mountains to make beautiful music. The opening concert at Warren Wilson College was an example of her creative programming. The Jasper String Quartet shared the program with countertenor Nicholas Tamagna, not an obvious pairing. Selections for string quartet began and ended the concert while two groupings of songs were presented before and after the intermission.

Longtime second violinist Sae Chonabayashi has left the Jaspers for personal reasons, and Karen Kim has replaced her. June was Kim’s first month with the quartet, and already she fit seamlessly with first violinist J. Freivogel, violist Sam Quintal, and cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel, who have played together for more than eleven years. It is still true, as the New Haven Advocate once wrote, that this quartet’s members “match their sounds perfectly, as if each swelling chord were coming out of a single, impossibly well-tuned organ, instead of four distinct instruments.”

Anton Webern is best known for minimalist twelve-tone compositions, written after his teacher Arnold Schoenberg developed the theory of this atonal approach to music beginning in 1908. But just as Schoenberg had earlier written in a late Romantic style – e.g. “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”), in 1899 – so we had an early work by Webern, the Langsamer Satz für Streichquartett (Slow Movement for String Quartet), profoundly tonal in E-flat, written in 1905, when Webern was 22 years old and in love. My recorded collection, bravely entitled Complete Works of Anton Webern, does not include this early work, which was long lost and publicly performed for the first time in 1962. It is a keeper. Don’t think twelve-tone music: think instead what Brahms might have written if he had lived to 1905. The Jaspers made a strong case for this work joining the canon of short works for string quartet.

The Jasper String Quartet then accompanied Tamagna in J.S. Bach’s “Erbarme dich” from the St. Matthew Passion. This selection depicts Peter’s grief when he realizes that he has denied Christ three times. To most people, it is a profound interior reflection that should be sung piano, if not pianissimo, and in a restrained manner. I was disappointed with Tamagna’s interpretation, which was much too theatrical. His bell-like tone was featured, but I felt the significance of the text was lost.

Much better were the other two vocal selections before intermission: an aria from 18th century operatic composer Johann Adolph Hasse’s Siroe and especially “Vivi tiranno” from George Frederick Handel’s Rodelinda. Tamagna is wonderful as an operatic hero, projecting a great sense of drama and strong bel canto technique. His ornamentation was impeccable, and his nimble control was acrobatic as he expressed scorn for the tyrant whom he has allowed to live.

Still in his 30s, Tamagna seems destined to lead the next generation of American countertenors. This became clear following intermission, when he performed art songs by the French composers Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) and Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947). The poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire was Poulenc’s favorite source for song cycles, and Les Banalités is a collection of five songs written during the Nazi occupation of Paris, three of which Tamagna sang to great effect: one serious song about love and sorrow followed by two amusing short verses about tobacco addiction and the joys of leaving the countryside to return to Paris.

Tamagna finished on a romantic note again, with Rehnaldo Hahn’s setting of “À Chloris” by the French Baroque poet Théophile de Viau. Again, this was a convincing dramatic presentation by the countertenor. You can find this song on YouTube with sopranos, mezzo-sopranos and baritones, but I defy you to find it performed better than Tamagna’s performance in Swannanoa. One tends to think of countertenors singing Baroque opera, but think again. Versatility is Tamagna’s calling card.

The Jaspers returned to the stage for a remarkably joy-filled performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D, Op. 44, No.1. Written in 1838, a few years after the “Hebrides” Overture and a few years before the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this quartet reminds me of both. The first movement, Molto Allegro Vivace, sets the tone: it is filled with tension and release, the tension provided by quiet hesitant passages and the release when the quartet bursts forth with fast joyous passages. Smiles, excellent eye contact and the confidence of a well-established ensemble led to a totally satisfying presentation. The Jaspers move on to Caramoor Center and then the Canandaigua Lake Music Festival after their week here. We hope they will return next year!

This program was repeated on July 1 in Waynesville and on July 2 in Greenville, SC.