The Western Piedmont Symphony’s Kontras Quartet continued their Chamber Classics Series with a varied program that included holiday favorites as well as some rarely-performed repertoire. The enthusiastic house was justly appreciative of the sensitive and creative renditions of this ensemble and its special guests.

Many of CVNC‘s readers and writers are a part of, or at least are familiar with, the lively arts scene in central North Carolina. When this critic recently relocated to the western end of the state, she was cautioned to adjust her musical expectations accordingly. On hearing the cello carry the first strains of the first theme of Beethoven’s String quartet in F, Op. 59/1, she realized, much to her embarrassment, that she had underestimated Kontras. Talent cannot be limited by geography.

Kontras is in the second of a three-year residency with the Western Piedmont Symphony. They are an essential part of the organization’s outreach, and the musicians proved their skills in an informative and delightful (although unadvertised) preconcert lecture.

Beethoven’s Quartet in F, Op. 59/1,quickly displayed some of this ensemble’s strongest assets. Their patiently-paced crescendos emphasized the delicate phrases nicely. Communication was consistent but often understated: this quartet does not make a portentous event of every poco ritardando. The balance in the third movement was especially graceful; the voice crossing in the lower voices demands sensitive, critical ears all around. The intriguing and elegant transition from the third to the fourth movement was tastefully presented by Dmitri Pogorelov, first violin. It was Jean Hatmaker, however, who brought the loveliest moments of the quartet to life. Beethoven’s reliance on cello melodies in this piece presents both a challenge and an opportunity to players. Hatmaker made the music her own without dominating the entire ensemble, which can be a very difficult balance to strike.

After intermission, quite a social event in itself, Kontras returned with Villa-Lobos’s Fifth String Quartet. The seven short segments of the first movement are attractive to the listener but present challenging, instant adjustments in tempo, timbre, and even style to the players. This selection again offered Kontras the opportunity to display their subtle communication skills; one specific accelerando shared across three voices stood out as particularly well-paced. The Vivo e energico featured interesting motivic use as well as some fascinating sonoristic qualities as the instruments imitated the wild call of jungle animals. The last movement included energetic presentations of some of Villa-Lobos’ characteristic Brazilian dance rhythms.

The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet, Op. 11, which was not listed on the program, proved an unexpected treat. Francois Henkins, second violin, and Ai Ishida, viola, brought a lovely, almost woodwind-like quality to the inner voices. The breath of silence at the end of the movement testified to the gentle spell that this selection cast over the audience.

Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet may be a yearly tradition for this ensemble, but most listeners associate this composer with another holiday tradition. Nutcracker faithfuls, however, were not to be disappointed. Kontras collaborated with four representatives from two local dance studios to present a miniature version of the Christmas classic, with elegant, traditional choreography by instructors Melissa and Michael French. While the change in the orchestration took some getting used to, once listeners became accustomed to the new instrumentation, the quartet came across as quite appropriate for the intimate presentation of a small dance ensemble. Kaylie Younce and Adrienne Keville presented charming Mirlitons, their colorful costumes instantly adding holiday cheer to the performance. Dancers from both studios presented clean footwork and excellent, clean pointe technique. Hannah Church was an elegant realization of every aspiring dancer’s dream: the Sugar Plum Fairy. Jean Hatmaker’s arrangement of the doll scene was deferentially faithful to the original. Kaylie Younce returned to present a charming Columbine, and Cailyn Kennedy’s performance as the Harlequin featured challenging and athletic grand allegro choreography often reserved for male dancers.

The Hickory audience featured an impressive range of ages. There were many wonderfully-behaved young people listening, and many more assisting with programs, tickets, and ushering. The box office was smoothly managed, the program notes, informative, and the hall was a real asset to the ensemble. The atmosphere was hospitable, charming, and unpretentious, but without detracting from the dedication to creating quality music. In other words, there are many things that larger, better-funded organizations could learn from the folks in Hickory, NC! People ’round here know how lucky they are. Anyone from out of town planning a tour of fall leaves or the Appalachian spring flowers should consider factoring the performance schedule of the WPS and Kontras into their vacation plans.