Asheville Chamber Music Series holds pride of place as not only one of the longest-running chamber music series in the US (this is the 61st season) but also one that engages top artists at the peaks of their careers. It’s no wonder that each event plays to a full house; and in fact one must come early to get a good seat. Biltmore United Methodist Church, with its lively acoustics, was the new host venue for this fine concert, located here to accommodate the increased number of performers. Members of the Modigliani Quartet were joined by pianist Joyce Yang for works by Haydn, Ravel, Mozart, and Schumann.

Violinists Philippe Bernhard and Loïc Rio, violist Laurent Marfaing, and cellist François Kieffer, all close friends, formed the Modigliani Quartet in 2003. Following their studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, they have steadily garnered international acclaim through their many appearances and recordings. In just over ten years they have amassed an impressive array of awards, beginning in 2004; only one year after they were formed, the ensemble won the Frits Philips String Quartet competition in Eindhoven, Holland. Their four recordings on the Mirare label (available from major outlets) have, likewise, been award winners. In addition, each member plays a historic instrument: the violins are by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1780) and by Alessandro Gagliano (1734), the viola is by Luigi Mariani (1660), and the cello is by Matteo Goffriller (1706, former”Warburg”). The sound of these instruments resulted in a warm and beautifully blended ensemble.

Pianist Joyce Yang is well remembered by Asheville audiences for her stellar performance in 2012 as soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Asheville Symphony. A native of Seoul, South Korea, Ms. Yang’s training continued in 1997 in the pre-college division of the Juilliard School, where she eventually won their 2010 Arthur Rubinstein Prize. A Steinway artist, she travels around the world from her home in New York.

The program opener was Haydn’s Quartet in B-Flat, Op. 50, No. 1, one of a set of six quartets (“Prussian”) composed in 1787 and dedicated to music-loving Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia. The work post-dates Haydn’s famous Op. 33 collection, one which was titled “string quartet” for the first time and in which Haydn had excitedly declared his new intention to write “in an entirely new, special way.” The kind of thematic development of musical material begun in Op. 33 plays out in Op. 50, No. 1, and also in the composer’s symphonies from the same period. The quartet also bears the same symphonic form of four movements. The opening movement showcased the artistry of the Modigliani Quartet. Nimble and savvy, they are great performers and listeners. Their sound was beautifully calibrated so no one instrument was voiced consistently above the others – often one can hear this in the playing of other quartets, especially in the first violin and cello – but brought to prominence only when the music called for it. I was mesmerized by their careful handling of the smallest details – for example, what could have been a boring motive, the opening gesture of repeated notes, was shaded differently in the hands of each player as the piece progressed. As the piece evolved from the second movement Adagio non lento, third movement Menuetto-Trio, and fourth movement Vivace, the artists’ unity of interpretation in all matters of style was abundantly evident.

The Ravel Quartet in F from 1902-03 furnished the boldest contrast in the programmed selections; this came next, before intermission. Following in the wake of Debussy’s only quartet, it shares with it several formal and stylistic traits, and yet is uniquely “Ravelian.” The cyclic structure ensures that its principal themes reappear in each of the four movements. The events of each movement unfold in an inexplicable and unpredictable trajectory within a soundscape marvelously colored by Ravel, a master orchestrator. The performers displayed throughout this extraordinary work an astonishing array of timbres and dynamics, occasionally resulting in a rich and full “orchestral” sound where warranted. Most unforgettable was the second movement, Assez vif, with its energetic pizzicato exchanges evocative of Spanish guitar fandango playing.

The sole work after intermission was Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K.478, of 1785. Here the string instrumentation was reduced by one violin to violin (Philippe Bernhard), viola, and cello. This was the first of two such works composed by Mozart; they were unique for their time in their coupling of the virtuosic demands of the concerto with an equal “chamber” partnership with the three strings. In formal design the work is like a three-movement concerto with framing fast movements. Ms. Yang’s playing certainly lived up to my heightened expectations. She is master of a host of delicate articulations which were perfectly in keeping with the style. Jewel-like tones emerged again and again in her many solo passages, whether fast or slow, and each movement held its own sharply delineated character. The most amusing movement, the concluding Rondo, had touches of Haydnesque humor which played out in the facial expressions of each player.

The concert concluded with a rousing encore, the third movement, Scherzo, from Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 (1842), necessitating the return of the second violinist to the ensemble. What a delightful evening! Keep them coming!

This was the pianist’s second visit to North Carolina this season. For a review of an early October concert with the NC Symphony, click here.

The ACMS’ season resumes with the Ciompi Quartert on February 23. For details, check our calendar after the turn of the year.