CVNC has chronicled the high artistic standards, imaginative programming, and rapid audience expansion of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival based on the Greenville campus of East Carolina University and now in its sixth season. It was founded and is directed by the irrepressible violinist/violist Ara Gregorian, who draws musicians from a large pool of outstanding younger artists, many of whom are regulars in such groups as Concertante, the Caramoor Virtuosi, and the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra. This year, the ensemble begins its first tours, including this January 15 Watson Hall (NCSA) repeat of an ECU program given two days earlier; the ensemble also makes its New York City debut in Weill Recital Hall on February 19. Each Greenville concert involves a week-long intense residency with concerts for school children and master classes with ECU music students and others. Before their January 13 Greenville concert, the ensemble spent the day in Winston-Salem, giving master classes to all of the NCSA string students.
This pair of concerts featured the world premiere of String Quartet No. 3, titled "Air," by NCSA faculty member Lawrence Dillon (b.1959). This is the third of a projected set of six string quartets that the composer calls the Invisible Cities String Quartet Cycle. Dillon writes that "Current conventional wisdom tells us that the Western Classical tradition is outdated and irrelevant." He asserts that "there is still much of value, much worth preserving in [this] tradition. Taking inspiration from the concluding passage of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, I have set out to demonstrate that we can still learn powerful lessons by reinterpreting the accomplishments of our predecessors." String Quartet No. 1 ("Jests and Tenderness") was premiered in October 2000 by the Mendelssohn String Quartet. String Quartet No. 2 ("Flight") was premiered by the Daedalus String Quartet in November 2003. The Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival premiered the Third Quartet on January 13 in Greenville.
According to Dillon's note, "...'Air' is a single-movement, ten minute work in five symmetrical sections: Aura-Aria-Air-Aria-Aura." In addition to the more obvious singing melodic line spun out by different combinations of instruments, the composer "ornament(s) not only in pitch and rhythm, but in timbre and tempo as well." The players were violinists Ara Gregorian and Ivan Chan, violist Ulrich Eichenauer, and cellist Michael Kannen. Throughout, intonation was precisely on the mark, dynamics were very finely graduated, and string color and phrasing were all one could wish for. The "Aura" is light and delicate and ends with sound vanishing seamlessly into silence. Dillon says the Aria is an homage to the operatic aria, vocalized by violins and viola. It also features extremely high notes for the second violin and some deep, resonant cello pizzicatos. The second Air ranges from icy tremolos to an intense melody sung by the second violin and viola. The cello sings a melody in the second Aria above an imitation of the shape of the human breath. There is a suggestion of meowing sounds from the strings. The final "Aura" slowly dwindles into silence. The audience held its applause for a moment, giving this ending its maximum effect. This well-crafted work invites further hearings. (For more information about Dillon's quartets, see http://www.lawrencedillon.com/invisible.php. A review of a fine recording of his chamber music, featuring members of the Borromeo and St. Lawrence Quartets, is at http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/cd_dvd_book/cd/DillonChamberMusic.html.)
Many music lovers regard Mozart's two duo concertos, composed in 1779, as earmarks of his full artistic maturity. Both the Concerto for Two Pianos (K.365) and the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola (K.364) are in the same key, E-flat Major. In 1808, an unknown hand – current scholarship suspects it was that of clarinet pioneer Anton Stadler – made a transcription of K.364 for string sextet. Most such distillations are bland versions of the originals but this Grande Sestetto Concertante is extraordinarily successful. Some of this is due the arranger's taking part of the solo viola and giving it to the first cello. The redistribution of the full orchestral parts among the six players is also imaginative. The major solo portions were taken by the stellar Canadian violinist James Ehnes and violist Ara Gregorian, with part of the hijacked viola line gorgeously sung by cellist Edward Arron. The second chair players were Chan, Eichenauer, and Kannen. Balances and phrasing were most effective and the ensemble was precise, charged with an obvious sense of fun as portions were tossed among the virtuosi. This work deserves wider exposure in concert and on recordings.
Concerts featuring string sextets are rare enough, and Four Seasons Festival concert programs come close to being a regular source. Brahms' Sextet No. 1, Op. 18, has gotten considerable exposure in the Piedmont, so it was quite a treat to hear his Sextet No. 2 in G, Op. 36. Though the composer almost always eschewed program music, this piece has several musical allusions built into the score. When the work was begun, he was romantically involved with Agathe von Siebold, actually going so far as to exchange engagement rings. He ended the relationship, which nevertheless affected his emotions deeply. The fine program note by Kevin N. Moll identifies "two places (measures 164-68 and 526-30) [where] the composer sets out a theme that spells the name of his erstwhile beloved." The six players used a broad palette of string color, weaving remarkably clear textures and avoiding heavy or thick sound. The hushed sections benefited from sensitive and closely-matched graduations of dynamics. There was no want of heft in the louder, passionate sections. The first movement featured full and rich violas at the start and a glowing cello melody near the end. The scherzo brought interesting pairings, plangent pizzicatos, and a Länder-like bass in the middle portion. Brahms' love of the variation form dominated the slow movement. An extended melody for paired violas was memorable. The unrushed finale wore its counterpoint lightly as the cello seized the melody and the viola briefly took on an almost elfin quality.
The musicians exchanged the seating used in the Mozart. All music lovers are urged to seek out concerts by the versatile Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival players whether in Greenville or on tour.