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The Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival began (we are told by the program) with an idea by founder and artistic director Ara Gregorian at a house concert in 2000. The Festival is resident in Greenville. Season 1 began impressively with a five-concert program that included master classes, open rehearsals, and children's concerts; it has continued to grow with every season since. This year is the 20th season; the anniversary is being commemorated with lots of special events for the generous donors who make this excitement possible.
The program was simply the Cello Quintet, D.956, completed only months before Schubert's death. In spoken program notes, Michael Kannen compared this piece to Mozart's Violin Quintet and mentioned that there have been very few quintets (and none so great) written following this piece. Kannen also recognized Season Guarantors David and Sydney Womack.
As an interesting observation, electronic tablets have crept onto the stage; both Kim and Kannen have embraced these devices, which I first saw used by violinist Nicholas Kitchen, at the time still something of an enfant, if not terrible. This is a far cry from 35 years ago, when a self-anointed patron of the arts complained that not only did the fortepianist not play from memory, he wasn't even using "real music." She fell silent when it was pointed out that it was a photocopy of the original copperplate engraving of the late 18th century.
It was a full house in Fletcher Recital Hall to hear Schubert. This 260-seat space was perfect for the music. The musicians are all close enough to the audience that the latter get a strong sense of the individual personalities, which would otherwise be lost in the majesty of the music. Kim was the most flamboyant of the players; Gregorian was next. Kannen seemed totally serene throughout. Wiley was animated; Lambros was vigorous.
The precision and verve of the ensemble was continuously remarkable. They were all both spritely and professional at the highest level. From the first note of the opening Allegro to the final chords of the final Allegretto, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to distract from the complex and powerful notes of the composition.
The Allegro begins with the softest of pianissimos, deliciously tranquil. In this performance, the beginning was sure, accurate, and musical, without the hesitation I have heard in other (recorded) performances. This mastery characterized the entire performance.
The Adagio is the loveliest of lullabies bookending a frenetic middle section in A-B-A form. The contrast of the bowed cello line with the pizzicato cello line was beautifully played out between Kannen and Wiley. The pizzicato ongoing one-twos are deliciously varied by those occasional one-two-threes.
The Scherzo opens with what always sounds to me like a jolly hunting image. The musicians were as sure here as always, constantly listening and looking at each other. From beginning to end, they achieved a perfect communion of spirit and thought.
The final Allegretto is darker than the preceding movements, but under the hands of these players it was never maudlin.
After the final chords, the was a complete unanimity of thought among the audience: the standing ovation was immediate and totally well deserved.
Note: This program was repeated the following day in Raleigh.