The second performance of a program entitled "Spotlight" cast new light on the celebrated Eroica Trio, thanks to an opening half featuring the artists in individual partnership with the artistic director of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, pianist William Ransom. This concert was presented in the intimate confines of the auditorium of the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library, a branch of the Fontana Regional Library system, which serves six libraries in three Western NC counties. The small room, nicely appointed in wood, accommodates about 125 people. There is a low platform and a fairly low ceiling, and the sound is immediate, direct, and clear. There's a small Steinway that, in this space, sounds bigger than it looks. With these attractions and beautiful landscaping around the building itself, what's not to like?
And the patrons do seem to like a lot about the HCCMF, now celebrating its 35th anniversary. This concert was completely sold out, and there was a significant waiting list – a wonderful problem for chamber music presenters to have in an era of dwindling attendance and support elsewhere – that led to a late start. Key to the success of this venture must be its location in one of NC's premiere resort areas, which draws Tar Heels and residents of South Carolina, Georgia, and beyond, including even Florida. And the festival seems pretty much to enjoy a life of its own, despite the proximity of Brevard and its significantly larger summer music extravaganza, just 28 miles from Cashiers and 38 from Highlands. Among the other reasons for the popularity of the HCCMF must be its long-term stability in terms of artistic leadership and management, its attractive series of back-to-back concerts with different programs and artists (each offering generally repeated twice), and the late-afternoon/early-evening starting times, which allow patrons to escape to dinner while there's still daylight. Oh, and the temperatures are wonderful in the mountains. On this evening, it was 70° in the sun!
Ransom is a magnificent pianist and jack-of-all-trades. Here, he schlepped chairs for the overflow crowd, managed the house lights, made the first introduction, handed out door-prizes, and generally made everyone feel welcome. Did I say he also played the piano?
The program began with four of Brahms' Hungarian Dances heard, as the composer intended, as piano duets. Three of the four – nos. 5, 17, and 1 – are perhaps better known in orchestral guises. No. 14, heard in the penultimate slot, was therefore particularly welcome. All were given with infectious verve and spirit by Ransom and the Erocia's pianist, Erika Nikrenz. (Bios of the trio members are here.)
There followed the six Romanian Dances of Béla Bartók, originally for piano but given in the famous transcription for violin and piano by Zoltán Székely – and as famously recorded by Joseph Szigeti and the composer. It doesn't cast any shade to cite that version, for the one heard in Cashiers was totally committed and every bit as compelling, with violinist Sara Parkins and pianist Ransom brilliantly plumbing the emotional depths and ebullient highs of these short pieces.
Bringing the first half to a close was Mendelssohn's Cello Sonata in D, Op. 58, radiantly played by Sara Sant'Ambrogio in keen partnership with Ransom. In opening remarks she cast new light on the work's slow movement, suggesting it may depict the composer's ongoing personal efforts to reconcile Judaism with Christianity. This introduction may have inspired even closer-than-usual listening by the audience, which seemed enthralled at every page turn and more. And surely there are few artists who manifest their delight in playing as these two did during this music, delivering it from start to finish with complete technical mastery and total interpretive excellence that made this listener (for one) think he was hearing the music for the very first time.
The place erupted with applause.
After intermission there was a single work, Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2, in C minor, Op. 66 (in which, incidentally, the composer seems to resolve all theological doubts, since he quotes the theme of the ancient chorale known as "Old Hundredth" in the last movement).
Hearing the Eroica Trio, among the world's top ensembles, in this music proved deeply rewarding, particularly after the rare opportunity to have experienced these artists in pieces more often given in recitals than on chamber music programs. Notable in this rendition was the truly astonishing matching of the string parts, in which each player seems totally in agreement – far more than is normally the case – with the other's phrasing, intensity, dynamics, etc. They even seemed to breathe in the same places in their shared phrases. But despite this exalted level of string playing, this was from start to finish a complete ensemble performance in which all three artists played at their very best and with deeply moving unanimity. We hated to have it come to an end.
The rest of the audience seemed to agree. And the artists sensed a need to bring us down gently from the heights. A transcription of "Bess, You is My Woman Now" (from Porgy and Bess, presumably in the arrangement by Raimundo Penaforte) has rarely seemed so moving – so I am far from confident it served to tamp down the emotions. Indeed, this short encore could have made a stone weep.
Sant'Ambrogio's participation in the festival continues 7/17 and 7/18 with "Cellomania." For details, see the sidebar.