While it isn't unusual for our symphony and festival orchestras to find welcome and summertime refuge in the mountains, it's rare to see musical reciprocation coming from the high country. So the concerts scheduled by the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival, based on the Warren Wilson College campus, at distant Dana Auditorium, on the Queens University campus in Charlotte, are an unusual phenomenon. The consanguinity between the two far-flung campuses is Swannanoa's general director Paul Nitsch, a former music department chairman at Queens who co-hosted the concert at Dana and presided over the keyboard. Taking his turn at making introductions, Nitsch pointed out that special guest violinist Peter deVries is also the incoming president of Friends of Music at Queens, the organization presenting the Swannanoa Chamber Players at Dana. With another entirely different Swannanoa program scheduled a week later, it's safe to say that the connection between Swannanoa and Queens will continue in summers to come.
The programming for the first Friends of Queens concert of the 2010-11 season was appropriately lighthearted before intermission. Georg Philip Telemann's Trio Sonata in G minor was a slight misnomer in its performance, since deVries, oboist Cynthia Watson, and bassoonist Lynn Heilman were joined by Nitsch playing a modest continuo. Watson displayed a full sound in the contrapuntal opening movement and in the languid third-movement largo. deVries was most dominant in the second-movement largo and frolicked engagingly with Watson in the closing allegro. But speaking as a longtime fancier of Telemann's sonatas, trios, and quartets, I didn't find this trio a serious rival to the best of the breed.
The Ars Nova Suite, arranged for woodwind quintet by Noel Scott Stevens, whisked us back to the sonorities of 14th-century France for a pleasant potpourri. Tempos and instrumentation were pleasantly varied in the middle pieces, with rich ensembles in the outer movements, including the usual suspects: clarinet, flute, French horn, and welcome returns of Heilman's bassoon and Watson's oboe. After the opening "Caccia - Lorenzo di Firenza," the liveliest of the pieces, "Ballata - Bonaiuto Corsini," shuttled the spotlight from Watson to David Bell's clarinet to George Pope's flute to Heilman's bassoon. Watson's oboe was slightly favored afterwards, juxtaposed with flute or clarinet, their dialogues broken by concise expostulations from Bill Hoyt on the horn. Hoyt and Heilman were featured in the ensuing "Ballata" by Gherardellus di Firenza. Pope eventually had a chance to shine in a fairly long solo piece, followed by a charming duet with Watson and Bell. If Bell was slightly shortchanged in the distribution of parts, perhaps that's why he drew the honor of introducing the suite.
There would be no encore at the end of the program, but after Nitsch announced deVries as the incoming Friends of Queens president, the first half of the concert was supplemented by the Pablo de Sarasate setting of "Malagueña," presented in a sonata format. Not that it was necessary, but deVries good-naturedly warned the audience that all the virtuosic fripperies they were about to witness were all written in the score. Of course, that is almost implied by the inconsequentiality of the keyboard accompaniment.
Nitsch finally played a forceful role in the music-making after intermission as he teamed with deVries and Hoyt in Brahms' Horn Trio in E-flat. Hoyt, the Swannanoa Festival's music director, fittingly did the honors introducing the piece, which he calls "one of the great chamber music pieces of all time" at the festival and one of the highlights of the five-week series. The rich tone lavished by Hoyt on the opening andante, after deVries introduced the theme, certainly added substance to his claim – while the trio was adding sinew to the program. Nitsch was instrumental with his power at the keyboard in affirming that the lightweight portion of the concert was now over. Even in the ensuing scherzo-allegro, a little less grave and more frolicsome than a Beethoven scherzo, Nitsch had a lyrical lead that he played with admirable depth, soon surpassed by the somber introductory bars of the adagio molto. Hoyt was eloquent simplicity here, his sure tone sustained in the softer passages, building majestically and tragically – less mightily the second time – before this penultimate movement was swallowed in funereal quiet. Surely anyone who might have forgotten Hoyt's remark that the piece commemorates the death of the composer's mother remembered it now.
In a sense, the allegro finale of the trio is more reflective of the composer's inner turmoil, for its spirited huntsman gallops are interspersed with reflective and quiescent passages, as if Brahms is probing how to resume life. The unpredictable stew surely owes much to Beethoven, darting from one contrasting musical strand to another, restlessly synthesizing living and mourning without arriving at a comfortable balance. Hoyt, Nitsch, and deVries held it all lucidly together.