The Asheville Chamber Music Series has returned to its home at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville on Edwin Place for its 62nd season. Another tie to “home” was the appearance of pianist Brad Martin, a piano professor at Western Carolina University, who, with violinist Justin Bruns performed a program of sonatas by Beethoven and Ravel. The attendance at these chamber music concerts has remained strong throughout the years, and all the usual suspects were there for this recital, along with new audience members. Because the series routinely engages artists from other regions of the country, it was thrilling to hear one of our own.

Brad Martin has taught at WCU since 2002. Prior to that, he served on the faculty of several colleges and universities in vastly separate parts of the globe, including Oklahoma City University, the Anglo-American School of Moscow, and the Western Australian Conservatory of Music. He has performed internationally and has made recordings for television and radio. His Doctorate in Piano Performance was earned at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Justin Bruns is currently active internationally as both a chamber player and soloist working out of Atlanta, where he has been Assistant Concertmaster with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 2006. He began studying the violin at the age of three, won his first competition at age five, and at age nine made his solo orchestral debut. He earned his Master’s Degree from Rice University.

The program opened with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in D, Op.12, No. 1, the composer’s debut in this genre. Dating from the late 1790s and dedicated to Antonio Salieri, one of his teachers, the work is a fascinating amalgam of traditional and innovative style elements. The opening Allegro, brimming with themes that were by turns muscular and lyrical, showcased the different performing styles of the two men. Bruns is an overtly expressive player who does a veritable dance on the stage in huge gestures. One could trace the shape of each phrase in his physical movements and facial expressions. Martin, by contrast, was the straight man who sat quietly and played very expressively with an utter economy of motion. This dichotomy played out throughout the evening. In the second movement Andante con moto, a lovely theme and variations movement, occasionally Bruns’ animation was distracting, as even supportive materials were played with big gestures. Throughout these first two movements, the duo performed with an exquisite air of intimacy, plumbing the depths of the pianissimo range of dynamics and drawing us into a more delicate interpretation of the music. The final Rondo revealed their uncanny abilities to mimic one another’s articulations (bow vs. fingers) in an interpretation that sparkled with vitality and fun.

Following this was Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G, a piece begun in 1923 and completed four years later. This, of course, inhabits a completely different sound world. In the first movement, Ravel seemed intent on juxtaposing lyrical passages with interjections of quirky, honking licks in each part. It was impossible to know where the composer was going with his music, and perhaps the unpredictable nature of the piece is part of its charm. The second movement, entitled “Blues. Moderato,” is arguably the most famous of the three movements and here was beautifully stylized. The players made the most of the contrast between the percussive piano and the melodious violin, though the latter had some sharply strummed chords as well. The third movement gathered its own energy into a whirlwind of perpetual motion, the violin part sounding often like the flight of a bumble bee at warp speed.

Standing alone after intermission was Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 in C Minor, Op.30, No.2, the only work on the program in four movements. The piece was composed in 1801-02 when the composer was wrestling with the onset of deafness for which there was no cure. The music, seemingly embracing this struggle against his unfortunate fate, was composed in the same key as his Symphony No. 5. The players certainly rose to the many challenges within the score – sheer endurance, concentration, and stylization – and brought this exciting music to life. Again, I was as impressed by the delicate interpretation of the quieter moments as the artists’ forceful playing of the declamatory and dramatic passages. Martin in particular has a superb ability to keep the fast passagework carefully articulated in such a way that all contrapuntal voices are easily heard. The third movement Scherzo, with its metric dislocations and jostling cross accents, was very funny, and the concluding Allegro. Presto gave us an exhilarating chase to the end.

For an encore, the duo performed a transcription of a Country Dance by Beethoven in a transcription by Jascha Heifetz. Their scintillating interpretation was a clever blend of sophistication and country-come-to-town naiveté, a perfect closer to this wonderful concert.

The ACMS’ season continues with the Festival Pablo Casals Prades Collective on October 17. For details, click here.