New Bern’s own character announcer, Finley Woolston, of Public Radio East, warmed up for an unnamed festival ensemble consisting of Melvin Chen, piano, Neil Deland, horn, and Catherine French, violin. Woolston was funny, but his humor was severely upstaged by an extensive lighting check that took place while he was trying to make us laugh. The audience for the Carolina Chamber Music Festival was standing room only; more chairs had to be borrowed and brought in from an adjacent church and the room reached fire-marshal capacity. Having happy hour before an early concert, along with the strong reputation of this festival, seems to be a very effective way to fill the hall.

The music began with Brahms’ Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, No. 2 (for piano solo). The lovely singing high notes were ppp at first, then swelled seamlessly louder and lofted over the audience in the Bank of the Arts, a space noble in appearance with its high (perhaps 20 feet) ceiling and engaged Corinthian order on the walls, and acoustically more than good enough. Chen’s tone was full and rich as well as gentle or aggressive by turns. Chen demonstrated impressive agogics and rhythmic flexibility, playing with warmth and feeling. His skillful manipulation of the final chords brought a complete hush to the crowd, a hush that was reluctantly broken by strong and appreciative applause.

The other piece on the program was Brahms Trio, Op. 40, for horn, violin, and piano. Finley Woolston’s rather extensive introduction began by explaining that this work of 1865 was, nevertheless, composed for the natural horn, which had been the instrument played by Brahms in his youth. Woolston went on to quote a long passage which seemed to extol the valveless horn. I was surprised and pleased at this introduction, thinking that we might be treated to a performance on Brahms’ choice of instrument. However, such was not to be. Deland appeared with what appeared to be an absolutely standard piston-valved horn. So much for composers’ wishes.

The opening Andante – Poco piu animato began with lovely violin work by French, soon matched and then somewhat overpowered by the horn. Meanwhile Chen played with a flowing style that enriched and unified the ensemble. The CCMF staff saw fit to take flash pictures with the accompanying mirror-slap of an SLR camera during the performance. There were several other cameras in use in the audience, as well.

The Scherzo: Allegro – Molto meno allegro began with Chen’s superb piano introduction, with playing that was clearly going someplace. The hunting horn fanfares were excellent, with lots of razz-ma-tazz horn timbre. There was unfortunately some serious overplaying of the room in this movement, but the players got themselves under complete control and towards the end the music was quite jolly.

All the instruments had some very effective somber rolling chords in the Adagio mesto.

The Finale (Allegro con brio) ramped very evenly to a forceful conclusion; the players clearly had the broad picture of the ramp in mind, so that the ascent was flawlessly smooth. Although the horn part was never unplayably unidiomatic, it didn’t sound like “a horn part.” Brahms did not cut any of the players any slack in this composition, the conclusion of which brought the audience to their feet as one body for a tumultuous ovation.