The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, serving those communities in the mountain region of western North Carolina, has had a distinctive 24-year run and an impressive aggregate roster of performing artists. The ace-in-the-hole is William Ransom, distinguished pianist from Emory University and peerless Artistic Director, who looks after all artists and artistic details and leads pre-concert discussions. He has a nifty one-month schedule of concerts, artists, special events, run-outs, and festival dinners.

On Friday, July 15, we heard a most unique and varied program at Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center in Highlands. First, guest artist Youngho Kim performed Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K.478, with members of the Vega String Quartet – Jessica Wu violin, Yinzi Kong viola, and Guang Wang cello. Only two works of this combination were written by Mozart, and they turn out to be leading edge examples of the “next thing.” Mozart and Haydn did not know they were creating the “classic” era in music, and at that time chamber works for piano were generally less complex. Perhaps no one else thought to write a mini-concerto, yet here it is in quartet form. The parts are substantial and demanding, and they are made more so by stylistic performance requirements. The work was brilliantly played, and a delight to hear.

Then came the Concertino for String Quartet by Igor Stravinsky. This is a brief, single-movement work Stravinsky wrote in 1919 for the Flonzaley Quartet (USA, 1903-29). It is a masterpiece of brevity, concentration, rhythmic layers, chromatic wandering, and brisk scale passages. The first violin carries most of the melodic weight. It has been arranged for chamber ensemble and presented as a ballet. In dramatic relief next to the Mozart, its distinctive character was clear, and it made for an excellent run-up to the break.

After intermission was a solo set by American guitarist Eliot Fisk. I last heard him in New York at Columbia University on July 2. We were both on the faculty of the NY Guitar Seminar at Mannes, and his concert was the week’s closer. At that time, I heard many differences in his playing; the most logical stemmed from playing a back-up instrument. You see, the airline had failed to deliver his primary instrument. It was sent instead to — who knows? Phoenix? More obvious, however, was a new-found and intense introspection in slower lyric lines. Many factors come into play: an artist is allowed to be different and evolve. Where non-structural elements of music sound as though tossed away, things can seem a bit distracted and unusual. In general his New York performance seemed less purposeful and committed than we have known from past years – if not off form, then certainly distracted.

In Highlands, he opened with a classic-era guitar warhorse by Fernando Sor, the Introduction and Variations, Op. 9, on a theme from Mozart’s Il Flauto Magico (“O Cara Armonia”) – it was a tip to the first-half Mozart. Here the guitarist seemed more comfortable, and we heard the primary instrument by Stephan Connor of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He followed with a mixed group consisting of the gem “Homenaje, pour le tombeau de Debussy” by Manuel de Falla. A passionate threnody, it expertly combines a habanera rhythm in the context of a dirge. Harmony is built on the signature tuning interval of the perfect fourth. In his only work for guitar, Falla wrote an echo of Debussy’s “La Soirée dans Grenade.” This group concluded with three characteristic Spanish pieces by Regino Sainz de la Maza: “El Vito,” “Peternea,” and a vigorous “Zapateado.”

Next came a group of four pieces from American Bouquet by recently-passed George Rochberg. These are settings of Tin Pan Alley themes written for Fisk including “My Heart Stood Still,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the wholly original “How to Explain,” and the raucous “Notre Dame Blues.” The program concluded with four violin capricci from Op. 1 of Nicolo Paganini. Fisk’s recording of all 24 of these demanding violin pieces certainly raised the bar of guitar playing worldwide by introducing new and innovative performance techniques.

Except for the Sor, this was essentially the same program he played in New York, and a greater sense of ease was clearly present. The slow, lyrical material was again given great poetic power, but there were hit-and-miss moments, mostly associated with faster passagework or large leaps of interval, suggesting that all issues may not be resolved. There were no encores – a first, in my experience (and I’ve been hearing his concerts since 1974).

On Monday, July 18, in Cashiers, we heard an all-chamber-music concert with the guitar at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, used this year while the series regular venue there, the library, is being remodeled. The Vega String Quartet was again called for duty in a program of Haydn’s Quartet in D, Op. 2/2, Astor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango, with Hae Hyung Lee on flute, a terrific four-movement trio by Niccolo Paganini, and the world premiere of “Juniper,” a quintet by Van Stiefel.

The Haydn and Paganini works were treated with the usual chamber-setting delicacy and detail. Fisk wrote his own cadenzas for the Adagio movement of Haydn, and his Paganini simmered with tension while awaiting the fast passages. The Vega strings were impeccably in tune, in time, totally synched, and a joy to hear and watch. The Piazzolla, reduced to just the first three movements for this program, sounded like two different pieces that occasionally harmonized at a cadence.

“Juniper,” on the other hand, is a revelation of music writing and making, and it was a great listening experience. Composer Van Stiefel described this new quintet, written exclusively with Fisk’s adventurous style of playing in mind, in a pre-concert talk. It has evolved since the first performance at Emory University last March, and the performance here was basically a second premiere. The genesis of the title is a small section of land in North Florida known as Juniper; a single piece of undeveloped acreage, surrounded by commercial development, still wild, saturated with exotic insects, and featuring that dense scrubby texture that must have driven Ponce de Leon completely nuts after he came ashore at St. Augustine in 1513. I reminded Stiefel that, based on his description, I’d have to write that “Juniper” is about an inhospitable and buggy land-locked island. Smiling, he replied, “yes.”

About the guitar’s inability to sustain long notes, Stiefel noted, “Meter is the pattern of impulse;” and a series of such impulses can be organized to suggest a direction in harmony, tempi, or texture. For the record, Stiefel’s language lacks the conventional expectations of music from the common-practice period. Actually, it is strikingly similar to 20th-century pandiatonicism but with less definition at the cadence – string players find this particularly appealing. There are wide swaths of ensemble where instrument registers are spread out to give a spacious, cloud-like feeling. It is as though you can see through the musical fabric. At other times, the writing is more dense and compact, but in any case the material is always moving. The middle movement (of three) could be a cloud of gnats! For guitar alone, it is an intense yet breezy and rapid moto perpetuo of about six minutes, tailored to Fisk’s superior technique and large hands.

At twenty minutes the work is just about right, and assembled audience and players we all delighted with the result. Stiefel was called to the stage for recognition and several cheers. He noted later, “I hear it coming now. For the first time I can really hear the players understand it.” “Juniper” is a major new addition to the guitar repertoire. If there is a downside, we must cite degree of difficulty –it is a virtuoso work for a virtuoso, to be played only by the cream of the world’s top players. But like I’ve been saying for a very long time, any guitar is too small to accommodate the grand musical landscape of Fisk’s artistic vision. I’m serious – somebody step up, please, and give this guy an orchestra! No, really.

This festival ( is expertly organized and managed by a cadre of local arts patrons, enthusiasts, and business owners who look after the dates, the personnel, and the advertising and see to it that the bills are paid. The roster of famous and not-really-famous but still tremendous musicians is nonetheless a sight to behold and a feast for the ears. The season program cover featured a reproduction of a painting of Eliot Fisk by English-born Juylan Davis of Scally Mountain, NC.

Edited 7/29-30/05.

*For a Letter to the Editor concerning these reviews, click here.