We all know the feeling. You bought tickets for a concert and were too lazy to research who was playing what. Trusting to blind luck inevitably leads to a little twinge of doubt on your way to the concert hall: I hope they’re good. Then, buried at the bottom of the bios, you find you’ve hit the jackpot: it’s Aeolus, the current Graduate Resident String Quartet at the Juilliard School. The Western Piedmont Symphony‘s Friends of the Quartet Chamber Classics Series brought in some out-of-town friends and didn’t mention their sexy résumés.

The Aeolus Quartet consists of Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro, violins, Gregory Luce, viola, and Alan Richardson, cello. Each boasts an impressive academic and performing history. As is true with the best quartets, however, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

The program offered two staples of the quartet repertoire – Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5 and Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major – and a contemporary addition by Christopher Theofanidis called Ariel Ascending. Given the major differences in style, these selections provided this ensemble with the opportunity to demonstrate its flexibility.

Following a friendly shout-out to Sally Ross, who was one of Nicholas Tavani’s first chamber music instructors, Aeolus launched into one of Papa Haydn’s delightful gems. The father of the quartet really could write one, but it takes a rare ensemble to do justice to the composer’s characteristic playful humor without verging on the slapstick. Aeolus’ wonderfully light and delicate touch made this work absolutely sparkle. While the performers took a little too long to settle in, by the fourth movement the ensemble was tight, the dynamics scintillating, and the timbre enviable. Best of all, the fun the musicians were having was written all over their faces. Like it or not, there’s not much else in instrumental music to look at, and it is always rewarding when performers put passion into their physical presence as well as their sound.

This performance was in an unusual venue tonight: the Keiser Community Room of the SALT Block. One of the nice features of the space was the little bistro tables along the perimeter for the pre-concert dinner, a new option that WPS is offering consistently this season. The room carried sound well, but the level of transparency was unforgiving. With a less accomplished ensemble, the level of exposure would have made for a less-than-satisfying experience. As it was, the clarity of detail proved an asset to the performers.

Haydn was followed by a quite different composer, Christopher Theofanidis. Ariel Ascending is a three-movement work that moves from the spirit world into “the realm of the earth,” according to the composer. The poem that inspired the piece – “Ariel” by Sylvia Path – is described by the composer as instilling “a feeling of both the beautiful and the nightmarish.” The music does the same. Much of the piece consists of chromatic, swirling fragments, which typically lie in a very limited range. When you have four instruments playing similar lines on top of each other, the sense of claustrophobia is palpable and heightens the surreal quality of the piece. Images from nature were projected onto the ceiling during the piece; the sources of the images were not described, but they complemented and even enhanced the music. The quartet’s interpretation was emotional and highly effective, especially during the harmonic climax near the end of the work.

The second half of the program consisted of Ravel’s popular Quartet in F Major. This ensemble’s interpretation was spot-on, showcasing the shimmering impressionistic quality of the work while also drawing attention to the thematic structure. That said, the true strength of the performance lay in the performers’ willingness to get out of the way of the music and let it speak for itself. A rousing encore based on a ghost story about a train – Dan Visconti‘s Black Bend – provided a rousing but slightly eerie finish.

Modesty in advertising is not a virtue. Western Piedmont Symphony does many things well, especially in utilizing young folks as ushers and in apparent improvements to front-of-house management. Perhaps a little more attention to marketing would have turned good attendance into great attendance. (On a personal note: I know string players in Boone, NC, who are willing to make the lengthy drive for a special treat such as this and regret not knowing more about this concert in advance).

The Western Piedmont Symphony has more events coming up soon; for details, see our calendar.