People get excited about opera, grand or otherwise, with stellar singing (sometimes...), stirring music (sometimes), dances, sets, and costumes. Opera is, after all, just about the highest form of art, and the highest-priced, too, in the performing sphere. And people get excited about ballet, too, with its purity of movement, its (sometimes) wonderful scores, its sets and costumes, and - let's face it - its lack of singers, dramatically plausible or not, and their occasional on-stage (and off-stage) misdeeds. And people get excited about orchestras, great and not-so-great, and their (sometimes) vast repertoires and the hot-shot (and not-so-hot) soloists who appear with them from time to time when they're not turning up on late-night TV. But true music lovers seem to know that it's in the world of chamber music that communications among and between artists and audiences can and often do reach peaks not matched elsewhere. It's a truism that the artists' devotion to the art form - chamber music - makes the difference, as often as not, between mediocre, so-so, good, and exceptional performances. And it's also true that just being a "great" (read: famous) artist is no guarantee of success in chamber music.
These thoughts came to mind, jumbled all together, during and after a chamber music concert in Carswell Concert Hall at Meredith on February 16. The short, intermission-less program consisted of just two works, Dohnányi's charming Serenade, for violin, viola and cello, composed in 1902, and Brahms' First Piano Quartet, composed in 1861. Both are laden with what might be called gypsy (or, if you prefer, Magyar) melodies, folk tunes that influenced these composers (and others). It is curious that only 41 years separate the two works, but they are from the same general mold - Central European gemütlichkeit, unmarred by thoughts of war or politics, abounds in both, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine hearing one or both of these pieces played by amateurs in a cozy little Bierstube in some little Central European burg a hundred years ago.
On this occasion, however, the venue was a fairly typical concert room of today, with a platform and all that, and the artists were some of our finest local residents, all professionals who happen to be among the most devoted chamber music enthusiasts in this neck of the woods. All have day jobs, too. Violinist Carol Chung teaches at Meredith, appears regularly with the Mallarmé Chamber Players, and subs around, here and there. David Marschall works with the MCP, too, from his base with the NCS (since 1987), where he is Assistant Principal Viola; he is looking forward to his 15th summer with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. Bonnie Thron, Principal Cello of the NCS, has had a richly varied life during which she has managed to retain her always-evident love of music - no small feat. And Frank Pittman, a member of Meredith's piano faculty, is currently pursuing his doctorate at UNCG. So these folks are busy, even without doing chamber music programs for relatively small crowds. They must love what they do - and that love was readily apparent throughout this concert.
The Dohnányi is not well known, but it was played several seasons back at Peace College, and it will be given again in Charlotte, by different artists, in April. There's a famous recording involving Heifetz, Primrose and Feuermann, by means of which some of us, of a certain age, first got to know it. The Brahms is another kettle of fish, since it is his most popular piano quartet, and since it was done up in orchestral garb by none other than Arnold Schonberg, who (according to Pittman's program notes) wanted to make sure the piano didn't dominate the music in his version. That 12-tone master might have been pleased from his listening post (wherever...) during the Meredith performance. Pittman handles the College's concert grand piano as well as anyone and better than most, and he has a keen ear for balance, so the results were consistently pleasing. There were high levels of watchfulness on the parts of all the players - there was none of the "ignore everyone else" nonsense our colleague Jeffrey Rossman noted recently, at a concert given by some heavies in the profession - and the attention to each other and to details paid handsome dividends. Now it's true that none of these artists are "big names" in the overall scheme of things, but that matters much less than the fact that they are all outstanding technicians who are concurrently conscientious (or, if you prefer, honest ) musicians. It makes a difference. And one has to believe that it makes a difference, too, in the way they approach their day jobs, whether they are teaching or playing in various orchestral trenches. Together, they reminded this listener of the fact that great art is not confined to the world's major metropolitan centers, and that it need not come at prohibitively high prices or be accompanied by a lot of social pretense. The readings of these two works, given by these fine artists, were consistently engaging, and they richly merited the enthusiastic response they received. If and when these folks play these works again, they'll be worth hearing. Next time, the results might be similar, or they might be better performances, or they might not be so good, but they'll be different, for certain, because no two performances are the same. That's just one of the many reasons people keep coming back to concerts, and one of the many attractions of live, as opposed to recorded, music. There's more of this going on in the Triangle than any single listener can possibly take in, all by his or her lonesome self. See our calendar for listing after listing of excellent freebies, given every month by fine musicians who live and work right here .