One doesn’t drive two hours to hear a concert without a certain thought creeping in: I hope it’s worth it.  In this case, happily, it was. The Carolina Chamber Music Festival closed its week-long exposition with a finale, at First Baptist Church, which included the premiere of a new work by James Blachly (b.1980). Also featured on the program were some short pieces for violin and cello by Reinhold Glière (1875-1956), and Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D.956.

After a brief talk by Blachly about his piece, Catherine French, violin, and Joel Moerschel, cello, opened the concert with three of Glière’s Eight Duets for Violin and Cello, Op. 39. These post-Romantic miniatures served as a pleasant introduction for the rest of the program. Moerschel’s phrasing toward the end of the first piece (“Prelude”) was particularly sensitive, and the two performers’ balance in the canzonetta demonstrated notable attention to one another’s parts. The closing piece, a scherzo, seemed to drag a bit, however. Had they brought out more of the mischief in the first section, there would have been a more satisfying contrast with the trio.

Next came the premiere of Blachly’s Variations for Harp and Strings (violin, viola, cello), commissioned by the CCMF. I had a chance to interview Blachly about the piece in advance, and his replies shed a great deal of light on the work. On the particular instrumentation, Blachly commented: “The more I worked on the piece, the more I came to appreciate the unique timbral possibilities inherent in this ensemble. It’s a fascinating combination of a piano quartet and a string quartet, as the harp plays a role somewhere between another string instrument (it blends in such a beautiful way with the strings) and a piano, with its prodigious range and arpeggiation/figuration possibilities.”

Blachly went on to describe the piece as compared with the rest of his oeuvre: “Like much of my work, the piece is melodically-driven, with a fascination with harmonic shifts, and a consciousness to the narrative and its structural foundation. The piece also deals with the interaction — and potential conflict — between a folk song and a modern composition. The open, naive beauty of the poetry and [Scottish song] inspires the work, and is the basis for the structural component as well, but the fact that this melody has such trouble emerging is reflective of the nature of the world we now live in: a complex, modern world, with a long and rich history behind us and within us, and the freedom to go wherever we choose to with this knowledge and power.”

Blachly’s reference to the melody’s struggle to emerge relates to his decision not to organize the piece according to traditional form, with the theme being presented at the outset. Instead, Blachly begins with six variations on the melody, applying inversion and retrograde techniques along the way, until the moment comes late in the piece where there is a musical apotheosis: the listener hears the foundation for all the previous variations, retrospectively appreciating their relationship to the source. The audience on this occasion had the “advantage” of Blachly singing (quite well!) the folk-like song (“Gloomy Winter’s Noo Awa”) during his pre-concert talk, and thus the aesthetic experience might have been something different from what those at a future performance would sense. Yet, knowing in advance that the composer turned Theme and Variations on its head invited those in attendance to listen all the more intently.

The performers similarly devoted intense concentration to their playing.  Melvin Chen, violin, Amadi Hummings, viola, CCMF Associate Director Jennifer Lucht, cello, and Artistic Director Anna Reinersman, harp, made the premiere of this complicated yet beautiful work quite memorable. From its opening, ethereal strains with quarter-tone dissonances, to the arrival of the less-disguised theme, the ensemble clearly understood the teleology of the musical journey and imparted not just notes, but narrative. In fact, the only measures that I didn’t find compelling were a few bars of glissandos toward the end in the violin and viola parts, which were well played but confusing to my understanding of the piece.

After intermission, we were treated to Schubert’s late string quintet, with its unusual scoring for a second cello. French and Moerschel joined Chen, Hummings, and Lucht to give an excellent performance of this considerable work. In the first movement, I found the players’ attention to harmonic shifts particularly enjoyable, as they never “plowed through” a surprising modulation, but instead gave many of these moments just the slightest breathing room. Collective articulation should also be mentioned; it was appropriately lush or lighthearted, depending on the musical material. Finally, the quintet had obviously rehearsed carefully those sometimes-troublesome measures that require a uniform attack, such as after the stormy middle section in the second movement when the momentum ceases. The trio of the third movement was also a highlight: the performers were wonderfully expressive, giving the section an almost cinematic quality.

The only criticism I would submit would be that those playing accompaniment parts in the second movement were, at times, too loud. The final movement was also not a favorite of mine, but the ensemble had nothing to do with this. Why Schubert decided to dip once more into the well of pensiveness in the midst of a Hungarian dance escapes me.

The year 2007 marks the fifth for this festival, and, based on this concert, it was one of the best thus far. That the directors make it a priority each year to premiere a new work, present a concert for children, and still offer plenty of mainstream, canonic chamber music over the course of one week is commendable. I encourage even more people from around the region to attend next year. It’s worth the drive.

Edited/corrected 9/17/07.