The Vega String Quartet, in residence at Emory University, returned to Chapel Hill for a concert in Gerrard Hall, presented on the Music on the Hill series. It is the Vega players’ custom to invite faculty artists of the host institution to augment their concerts, in this case pianist Mayron Tsong and violinist Richard Luby of the UNC Department of Music.
This still-young ensemble first attracted CVNC’s attention five years ago, when Hill Hall was the venue and pianist Thomas Otten was the supplemental player. On that occasion, Ken Hoover headlined his review, “This One Was Special...,” and for this return, the same caption may for the most part be applied once again. They’ve been in North Carolina often since then, appearing most memorably at the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival. Other concerts, in Hickory and again in Chapel Hill, were also documented by CVNC critics.
Beneath the surface, the ensemble has been stable over the years, with impressive cellist Guang Wang, comparably eloquent violist Yinzi Kong, and second violinist Jessica Shuang Wu continuing to grow technically and artistically. There’s been a good bit of turnover at the top, however; violinist Fia Mancini Durrett generally impressed this time, once the foursome settled into the venue and their program.
The bill of fare included Haydn, in this, the 200th anniversary of his death, Mendelssohn, in the 200th anniversary of his birth, and Chausson, the appearance of whose music on any program is always cause for celebration, anniversary year or not. First up was Haydn’s String Quartet No. 14, in E-flat, H.III:20 (Op. 9/2), one of a set of six works first published as divertimentos. The composer is called the Father of the String Quartet, but his progeny didn’t leap fully formed onto the world’s stage. These early works tend to be first-violin dominated, so the challenge to the players is to disguise to the extent possible this structural shortcoming. Here, there was at the outset – in a movement marked “Moderato” that came across as pressed to the point of briskness – little apparent effort to rein in the first fiddle, resulting in too much Durrett and not enough of the others (although, that said, cellist Wang managed to impress, as he has long done, with his solid sense of ensemble and distinctive playing).
Things improved considerably in Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2, in A minor, Op. 13, a prodigiously brilliant homage to Beethoven’s late quartets that has long been a big hit with chamber music fans. Here the balance and blend of the Vega players was far superior, and their engagement with the music was palpable. The kid knew what he was doing, and there are many “gee whiz” prefigurings in this music, hints, as it were, of even greater things to come in the composer’s tragically short life. The score clearly appeals to these relatively young musicians, and the performance truly seemed to glow from within.
So, too, did the somewhat strangely titled Concert in D, Op. 21, for piano, violin, and string quartet, by Ernest Chausson who, tragically, didn’t live all that much longer than Mendelssohn. This work, a double concerto with string quartet accompaniment that can also be seen (and heard) as the merger of a violin and piano sonata with a quartet, is one of two important but oft’-neglected scores – the other is the Symphony in B-flat – Chausson composed concurrently with his even more shamefully neglected opera, King Arthur. Folks who love Op. 21 – and there are many of us – have been known to travel great distances to hear it. There can have been little disappointment this time as Tsong and Luby joined the Vega Quartet for the 40-minute masterwork; the audience responded enthusiastically, recalling the artists several times before they waved good-bye and closed the anteroom door.
The powerful score, an homage to César Franck, is redolent of a long by-gone era, but music permits us to revisit, to re-live, really, these earlier times. The work of the supporting ensemble could hardly have been improved upon, and the virtuoso contributions of Tsong and Luby seemed perfectly integrated into the artistic whole of the piece. Gerrard Hall, rejuvenated, then lightly singed and made like new again, is a fine room for chamber music, despite a perceptible air-handling roar (although the roar is better than heat and humidity, for sure). Friends tell us that the sound is better still in the balcony; those who lament the lack of an elevator nonetheless can have no complaints on the main floor.
A program like this, played by artists like these, should have attracted a capacity crowd. That this was not the case made it all the more special for the folks who turned out for it.
The next concert in the Music on the Hill series will feature the UNC Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s “Of Angels and Neurones” on October 14, in Memorial Hall. The next local tribute to Mendelssohn will be September 30, in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, courtesy of the Duke Symphony Orchestra. See our calendar for details.