The all-volunteer non-profit Asheville Chamber Music Series has existed since 1952. Since that time, it has presented an impressive string of ensembles – over 230 concerts total – and has become one of our most enduring chamber music organizations. Since 1991 the programs have been presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church just off the downtown area. This setting offers reasonable comfort (when the ventilation system is working) and intimate seating. But because the place mostly operates as a church, certain “accommodations” must be made. Some heavy things need to be moved (altar, piano), “stuff” needs to be relocated (“let’s put it over there”), and the reception area is actually a library. Even without bringing up the street-curb neighborhood parking subject, the whole thing has a thrown-together feel that belies 53 years of experience producing concerts. It’s curious why they aren’t downtown in the well-suited and ample Diana Wortham Theater, just off Pack Square within yards of a parking garage.

The Mozart Piano Quartet (Mark Gothoni violin, Hartmut Rohde viola, Peter Hoerr cello, and Raul Rivinius piano) is from “Yur-up”; the players wear black and talk funny. They didn’t talk much – instead, they walked out and laid down a level-nine performance of what might otherwise have been an average program of chamber works. These guys can make it go.

At the 8:05 p.m. the hall was full for Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, in three movements. It appeared in two versions when published in 1801 – one for three strings and piano and also as a quintet with piano and winds. The duality probably has something to do with publishers trying to expand their market. Actually that’s a good point because this piece isn’t a searing virtuoso tour-de-romp you’d expect from a band like this. Instead, Beethoven is making nice-nice, going straight for the lyrical line above a fairly conventional foundation that makes the whole not all that remarkable. But…. These guys are all about precision, lots of body language, eye contact, and That String Thing – making a triad swell or grow like a balloon and then retreat. In this setting, the composition was really a tune-up piece for the band to get their legs, settle in, and hear the room. It made great theater for the audience. The pianist was clearly top rank and had great fun working a five-foot Schimmel.

It was in the Beethoven that I noticed the violinist was sitting on a wooden piano bench and the pianist and the two remaining strings were on stackable upholstered chairs. The altar had been moved to a lower level and laid on its side directly between the audience and the artists. The ventilation system was not working, or was working in the wrong way – odd, that on the first truly cool night of fall the room was actually hot and uncomfortable. More ad hoc feel….

Next came the Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47, by Robert Schumann (1810-56). This was written in 1842 and premiered in 1844 at Leipzig, with Clara Schumann at the piano. It is in four movements including a zippy scherzo. The MPQ made a breathtaking start and kept excellent ensemble throughout the lively chromatic writing. The scherzo starts off like a moto perpetuo, has a nice pause for a slow, lyric melody, and then returns to a quick pace. The last movement uses imitative entrances in order – viola, piano, violin, and then cello. Schumann seemed a little confused toward the end, but got his center back with a tightly-focused canonic coda.

During intermission, the ventilation system finally started functioning as desired while the audience met in the library for refreshments. Cool air flowed through open doors from outside again, giving a sense of fall and the renewal each season offers. This was the opening concert of the 2005-6 season, and while the first program was only half finished it had already produced some stunning ensemble.

The second half was devoted to the four-movement Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 13, by Richard Strauss (1864-1949). This was written during 1883-4, and there is constant reference of a melodic debt to Brahms. This reference appeared in the program notes and is also cited in The Grove Dictionary of Music. Here we have long, impassioned lines and parallel figures in harmony – often fifths, which seem a little out of character for the era. The musicians coped with changing temperature and air conditions very well, and they simply drove around any variables in intonation: they were in tune all night! The scherzo has a delightful call-and-response device. The slow movement features a lot of trading of ideas between instruments, and there is also a deep sense of longing and wanting in the melodic material. The last movement has a lovely long viola line that was played with skill and great tone. Then it was done. There was no encore.

The MPQ is a front-rank chamber ensemble and a delight to experience.

They don’t talk – they play!